Thirty-two cars in the train derailed, shearing one house near the tracks in half and setting a garage on fire. The train was traveling from Chicago to Selkirk, New York, when it went off the tracks. The toxic sulfur fire burned for over two days. While there were no injuries or deaths, residents were forced to stay with relatives and friends in other towns or were put up in motels. Many were unable to get to work.
Several people in the town told Socialist Workers Party members who went door to door there Aug. 8 that decisions by CSX bosses had made their lives worse even before the derailment, especially the decision to close the hump yard in Cumberland, Maryland. Trains coming through town got much larger. The crossings are frequently blocked as enormous trains go through, meaning ambulances, fire trucks, people trying to get to work, have no way to get by.
“The trains fly through town, 20 to 30 times a day,” Austin Sheetz, who just graduated from high school in Hyndman, told Arlene Rubinstein. “Something was going to happen.” He said a friend of his was hit and killed by an Amtrak train there.
After being evacuated, Sheetz volunteered at the Tri-State Ministry, which became a hub of activity feeding people forced from their homes.
Construction worker Curtis Diehl, who lives near the tracks, said he heard a screech and explosion. He immediately feared toxic chemicals. “I knocked on people’s doors and told them, ‘We need to get out of here,’” he told the press.
“I’m not suggesting that the length of the train caused the accident but it could have been a contributing factor,” said John Risch, speaking for the transportation division of the SMART union, which organizes CSX conductors. “It’s hard to keep track of where the train is, especially as it snakes behind you for more than two miles,” given the small size of the crew relative to the length of the train, he said.
“What are we doing with molten sulfur coming through town?” Caleb Shaffer told the Militant. “Working-class folks are the ones affected. Seems like the people at the top are detached, except from their profits.”
They’re running ‘monster’ trains
“They cut some of our mixed freight trains off and combined them into longer trains,” said Josh Blankenship, a 35-year-old conductor with three years on the job. He works out of the CSX yard in Cumberland, near where the train derailed. “We’re running monsters up here, sometimes 220 cars plus.”
Most residents were allowed back into their homes Aug. 5. A CSX official said that it was “highly unlikely” there would be negative long-term health effects. But the company added that people with asthma, heart disease, lung disease and those who are elderly, pregnant or infants might be more sensitive and should consult with doctors if necessary.
Three days later 20 of the train cars were still on the ground, and the immediate area around the derailment — 30 homes — remained under evacuation orders. Two cars containing flammable sulfur and asphalt are still to be cleared. CSX told the Altoona Mirror they plan to burn off lingering chemicals and load dangerous liquids from damaged cars onto new ones.
The rail bosses — like other bosses and speculators seeking to profit off stocks and other forms of commercial paper amid today’s crisis of capitalist production and trade — are pushing to take more out of workers’ hides. CSX bosses poached new CEO Hunter Harrison away from the Canadian Pacific Railway last March, hoping to reproduce his “successful” record of imposing draconian layoffs and speedup on rail workers there.
Since then over 2,000 jobs have been cut, out of CSX’s workforce of 28,900, and thousands more are on the chopping block. Most hump yards where trains are assembled have been shuttered. Trains have been consolidated, making them much longer, cutting the number of workers moving freight.
Safety rules like the “three-step” rule and use of the brake stick have been eliminated. The three-step rule is a set of safeguard procedures — setting the brakes, centering the reverser and opening the generator field switch, and then telling crew members the three steps have been applied — that locomotive engineers have had to take to prevent rail cars from moving when a co-worker is going to work under, between or behind them. No more on CSX.
A brake stick is a tool rail workers use to set handbrakes without having to continually climb up and down cars. Their use is now prohibited by rule, subject to discipline, because it’s deemed “inefficient.”
“In this part of the world an emergency brake application means that you have to set 100 percent of the handbrakes to allow the air to restore,” said Blankenship, who works on crews that haul coal up and down mountains. “Without a brake stick this becomes a dangerous and daunting task.”
CSX bosses also announced they will no longer pay for safety equipment like hard hats, safety vests and eye protection for workers who aren’t covered by union contracts.
As result of these changes, and in expectation of more to come, CSX stock values have risen significantly. But shippers say service has gotten worse, and some have switched to rail competitors or trucking.
CSX bosses blame the workers. “The pace of change at CSX has been extremely rapid,” Harrison said in an email apologizing to angry customers. “And while most people at the company have embraced the new plan, a few have pushed back and continue to do so.”
“There has been a very apparent shift away from safety for the sake of speed, not efficiency,” Blankenship said. “I don’t think for one second the railroad is anymore ‘efficient’ than it was. It is simply faster and more dangerous.”