The Militant(logo) 
    Vol.60/No.12           March 25, 1996 
Rail Wrecks Pile Up  


ST. PAUL, Minnesota - The railroad industry's seemingly unending chain of crashes and wrecks continued when a Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) freight train went on the ground near Cushing, in rural central Minnesota, spilling deadly anhydrous ammonia gas and forcing the evacuation of 20 families in a two-mile area. Three BNSF crew members and six area residents were briefly hospitalized after the February 27 accident. The calamity was the third major derailment for the BNSF in Minnesota in 13 days.

In St. Paul an 89-car BNSF freight train lacking a rear-end brake device lost its stopping capacity February 14 and roared into the St. Paul Canadian Pacific-Soo Line terminal. The next day a BNSF train derailed in northern Minnesota, spilling fuel additive.

The spate of rail accidents in Minnesota, and a February string of crashes in California, Utah, New Jersey, and Maryland, killed 17 railroad workers and passengers. This industrial carnage has focused media attention on how the rail bosses have slashed crew sizes and gutted safety precautions. The employers have tried to dodge responsibility for the string of derailments.

The rail brass cover their lack of even the most minimum safety equipment by alleging there is a shortage of braking devices. Dick Russick, a BNSF spokesman, initially asserted, "There are not enough [two way braking devices] to put on all the trains."

Jim Pontious, spokesman for Pulse Electronics, a Westinghouse subsidiary, and the major manufacturer of the device, stated that "We have enormous capability to expand capacity. We are nowhere near being maxed out. We build to order."

On February 25, The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported the announcement of Federal Railroad Administrator Jolene Molitoris that "virtually all freight trains" will have the device by June 30, 1997.

But the narrow debate over the braking device begs the decisive question - the absence of the caboose, from which a conductor or brakeman could not only control brakes, but also observe the train's movement, be on the lookout as oncoming trains approached, and provide a key set of eyes, ears, hands, and brains critical for safer train operation.

The rail bosses, in their profit-driven drive to downsize crews, got top rail union officials to sign concessions contracts starting in 1985 which began to eliminate the brakeman, and hence, the caboose. Crew sizes were slashed, from a conductor and two brakemen, along with an engineer, to the current norm of an only an engineer and conductor.

In 1988, as railroad workers began to feel the impact of the slash in crew size and the removal of the caboose, the Minnesota state legislature made a token gesture in response to lobbying efforts of rail union officials. It passed a law, never enacted, requiring cabooses on trains longer than 2,000 feet, or about 40 cars. Challenged by the rail bosses, the measure was overturned by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.


SELKIRK, New York - A rail tank car containing 31,500 gallons of liquid propane exploded into a ball of fire March 6 at Conrail's huge rail yard here, near Albany. The blaze was visible 10 miles away. The burning tank car, along with two others coupled to it, took off like a rocket through the rail yard for more than a mile before derailing.

"It was a miracle no one was killed," said a messenger and member of the clerks' union who drives rail crews around the yard. She explained that right before the explosion a group of workers in the area had taken their lunch break and walked away shortly before the blast.

Jon Flanders, a member of the International Association of Machinists who works in the diesel repair shop only a few hundred yards from the site of the blast, said a big discussion is taking place over the fact that the company has no evacuation plan for such emergencies. That day the only way out for Flanders and his co-workers was to run, jump into their automobiles, and leave the area as fast as possible. A few workers who did not hear the explosion remained on site. No emergency alarm system is in place. "What's Conrail's evacuation policy? Run!!!" Flanders said.

While this is the first time a propane tank car has exploded in Selkirk, other recent accidents in the area include a 51-car train derailment in Fonda, New York, on December 14 that spilled 3,500 gallons of sodium hydroxide, a chemical that burns skin to the bone. Seven local families had to be evacuated.

On August 28 Lewis Laramie, who was on a "conductor only" job, was run over and killed by another train while working in his part of the yard. In the nearby town of Chatham, four major derailments have occurred since April 1994.

While tank cars loaded with hazardous materials have certain safety mechanisms that are supposed to prevent explosions, as conditions deteriorate in the industry more accidents become inevitable. Today more freight is moved by fewer workers over worsening track and roadbed due to cuts in the workforce by companies bent on higher profits.

Valerie Johnson is a member of United Transportation Union Local 1473 and works as road conductor for Conrail between Boston and Selkirk.

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