Seeking to pin the blame on workers for deteriorating railroad safety conditions, Norfolk Southern Railway bosses are suing two of its employees for a collision and derailment in Georgetown, Kentucky, last month.
In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court April 5, the company claims that engineer Kevin Tobergte and conductor Andrew Hall were responsible for the “total destruction” of two locomotives and extensive damage to other rail cars. The bosses are asking the court to find these workers liable for damages to the locomotives, rail cars, tracks, right of way, communications and signal equipment, the costs of cleaning up spilled diesel fuel, as well as payouts to landowners adjacent to the wreck and Norfolk Southern customers whose freight was delayed.
“This is outrageous, Norfolk Southern Railway is attempting to set a precedent in scapegoating a train crew for damages even if the company could prove negligent,” Dan Crocker, a BNSF engineer working out of Lincoln, Nebraska, and president of Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen Division 98, told the Militant. “There is an increasing hypocrisy of the employers and the government to let business owners off the hook and go after the workers.”
Late in the evening March 18 a track was switched to put Norfolk Southern train No. 175 onto an adjacent track. When the crew stopped the train, another freight train collided with it, Trainsmagazine reported. All four crew members were injured. Over 200 train cars were involved in the collision, 13 of them derailed, with a fire that led to temporary evacuation of residents from the area.
Initially the rail bosses refused to say what the trains were carrying or what spilled, but later said it was a nonhazardous nut oil.
Rail bosses in their drive for profits are skimping on rail and train maintenance, endangering rail workers and nearby communities. They’re on a drive to get fewer workers to do more in less time on longer and longer trains.
As a result, the number of train disasters has risen, with the bosses accusing workers of being at fault. “In the wake of recent dramatic and highly visible railroad accidents in the United States and Canada,” said BLET President Dennis Pierce earlier this year, “there has been a trend to criminalize railroad workers and prosecute them as the sole cause of these tragedies.”
This includes the 2013 runaway train that derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people. Engineer Thomas Harding and traffic coordinator Richard Labrie were scapegoated by the rail bosses and put on trial by the Canadian government. But the frame-up came apart and the jury found the rail workers not guilty in January.
Other examples include the Amtrak train that derailed and killed eight people near Philadelphia in 2015; derailment of a CSX freight train in Hyndman, Pennsylvania, in August 2017, with spillage of molten sulfur and liquefied petroleum gas forcing evacuation of residents; and the December 2017 crash and derailment of an Amtrak train in Washington state, killing three passengers and wounding over 100.
Many unionists think the rail bosses’ goal in the lawsuit is not to get money. “They’re going to have to start paying railroaders $1 million or $2 million annually so they can pay for when their employer sues them,” John Risch, national legislative director for the SMART Transportation Division union, told Trains after the Kentucky derailment.
The real reason for the suit is to intimidate and threaten rail workers.
Joe Swanson in Lincoln, Nebraska, contributed to this article.