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Rail bosses’ profit drive behind NY train disaster

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A socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people
Vol. 77/No. 45      December 16, 2013


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(lead article)
Rail bosses’ profit drive
behind NY train disaster
Reuters/Carlo Allegri
Derailed Metro-North train in New York City Dec. 1. Company rejected safety measures as too costly even though they could prevent such derailments and resulting deaths and injuries.

NEW YORK — “82 MPH Criminal,” read the front-page headline of the Dec. 3 New York Daily News. “Train driver doing 82 MPH on a 30 MPH bend!” the New York Post said. The media campaign aims to foist all the blame for the Dec. 1 derailment of a Metro-North commuter train onto the train’s engineer, while diverting attention from how the rail bosses put profits ahead of the safety of passengers and crew.

Four passengers were killed in the derailment, three of them thrown from the train as it jack-knifed, and more than 70 were injured.

Contrary to the steamroller crusade in the New York press, Earl Weener, spokesperson for the National Transportation Safety Board, the government agency investigating the crash, said at a Dec. 3 press conference that they have not yet determined what led to the crash and pressed for Metro-North to implement safety recommendations that have been disregarded for years. “For more than 20 years the NTSB has recommended the use of Positive Train Control technology,” stated Weener, that “could have prevented” the crash.

Over the past few decades, the railway bosses’ relentless drive for productivity and profits has led to cuts in crew size, skimping on maintenance and refusals to install safety equipment.

Like almost all passenger trains today, Metro-North runs with only the engineer operating the train and keeping an eye out. Conductors in the passenger cars are tasked first and foremost with making sure every last fare is collected. In decades past, three rail workers worked together to run the trains.

Engineers on commuter trains have radio contact with other workers, “but it’s not like having another person there to check the settings, to verify the speed, to monitor the track restrictions,” James Stem from the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union told the Wall Street Journal Dec. 4.

William Rockefeller, Jr., the train’s engineer, has never been disciplined for his work in the 10 years he has been operating trains. He told investigators he had lost focus shortly before the derailment.

“It’s like a highway hypnosis,” one unidentified investigator told Reuters. “You’re looking straight ahead and you’re seeing rail and rail and rail, and you lose perspective.”

“Track maintenance is so bad and we have complained bitterly to the company,” Wendy Banen, a Metro-North engineer who retired in 2011, told the Militant Dec. 3. “The jobs are really long and the company runs trains back to back. Engineers are always exhausted and the problem is getting worse. On-time performance is all the company cares about. If you slow down they get all over you because you’re losing time and the pressure is really tremendous.”

All the trains have signals inside the cab that tell the operator the maximum allowed speed. If the train does not slow down, the device stops the train. But on curves like where the derailment occurred Metro-North has not installed sensors to activate the system.

“Metro-North could have long ago put something in the curve to drop the cab signal,” a Metro-North conductor, who asked that her name not be used, told the Militant. “That would have brought Billy out of his ‘fog’ and alerted him to an overspeed. Humans are imperfect, but Metro-North wants to believe otherwise and throw the blame on others.”

In July a CSX freight train went off the tracks just 1,700 feet from where this most recent derailment occurred.

Rail workers also point to the absence of an alerter in the Metro-North cab, a device that activates the brakes if the engineer fails to frequently push an acknowledgment button.

“Anytime you’re going down from 70 mph to 30 mph, that’s a dangerous curve,” Amtrak conductor Mindy Brudno said. “To have the engineer up there all by himself and not even have an alerter — I have worked on the railroad for 25 years and never would have dreamed a major commuter railroad would run trains from a control stand with no alerter.”

Injuries from derailments, collisions and other “accidents” on Metro-North trains are up this year, the Associated Press reported Dec. 1.

On May 17, a Metro-North passenger train derailed in Bridgeport, Conn., and was hit by a train running on an adjacent track; 73 passengers, two engineers and a conductor were injured.

On May 28 track foreman Robert Luden was hit and killed by a passenger train in West Haven, Conn. The train crew had been told to run on a section of track that had been taken out of service for maintenance.

On Sept. 25, an electrical cable failed in Mount Vernon, N.Y., knocking out service for 132,000 daily commuters for 12 days.

In November, Metro-North chief engineer Robert Puciloski told federal investigators looking into the May derailment that the railroad was “behind in several areas” in needed maintenance.

Most commuter trains, including the Metro-North one that derailed Dec. 1, are operated on a “push-pull” basis. When the train runs one way the locomotive is at the front, pulling the train. On the return trip, the engine is at the back, pushing the train, and the engineer controls the engine by remote control from the cab at the front of the train. This was the case Dec. 1.

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen has argued against the “push” mode of train operation for years over safety concerns.

The Federal Railroad Administration did a study of the push method after a Metrolink commuter train derailed in Glendale, Calif., in 2005, killing 11 people and injuring 180. Although the “raw numbers” would suggest push-pull is slightly more prone to derailment, the report said, the difference is not “statistically significant.” It also said the “record did show a higher fatality rate for occupants of cab car-led trains,” but opposed banning the practice because “substantial investments” would be needed to buy land, lay more track and implement other changes.

After the release of the study, Metrolink barred passengers from sitting in the first 11 seats on their commuter trains during push mode operation.

In 2008, Congress adopted a law mandating that rail companies install Positive Train Control systems on all trains by 2015.

Metro-North and other rail bosses have called for the requirement to be dropped or at least put off until 2020 or beyond. Three of the four major U.S. freight railroads and four of the seven major commuter lines — including Metro-North — have told federal regulators they won’t meet the deadline.
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