Watchdogs question training of rail workers

(The following article by Carl Prine was posted on the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review website on January 15.)

PITTSBURGH -- Federal watchdogs are becoming increasingly concerned about who’s training the trainmen.

In 2003, the Federal Railroad Administration mandated security training for railroad workers. Throughout the next two years, FRA inspectors handed out 1,066 warnings to 76 railroads to shore up hazmat security and safety training.

Thirteen railways were cited more than once, including five of the largest freight carriers -- Canada National, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern and CSX for operations in San Francisco, New Orleans, New York, Orlando, Buffalo, Columbus and other major metropolitan areas.

CSX alone was hit with 46 training defects at facilities in Florida, Tennessee and New Jersey. Smaller local, regional lines and switching stations in Chicago, San Diego, Detroit, Atlanta, Memphis, Nashville and Tacoma also received defects, according to FRA reports released to the Trib.

“Clearly, Congress needs to put more pressure on the railroads to ensure they are properly training their workers about hazardous materials security and safety,” said U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass.

Markey’s proposed rail security legislation would reroute the deadliest hazmat around cities and provide federal protection to rail workers who report an imminent safety or security threat.

A 2005 survey by the Teamster’s union of rail workers at 34 lines in 46 states proved similar to FRA’s findings: Four out of five union workers hadn’t received security training. Almost 90 percent said they couldn’t secure their locomotives from infiltration.

CSX employees reported that operating instructions were posted on control panels so terrorists could steam away with a load of hazmat. Almost every worker told researchers they hadn’t seen rail police in their yards on the day they were surveyed, but more than half witnessed unguarded hazmat shipments.

“The railroads don’t want an informed workforce,” said Brenda Cantrell, an instructor at the National Labor College’s George Meany Center in Maryland. “They want the trains to move on time. They don’t want a rail worker to say, ‘No. I refuse to carry your cargo until you put a safety placard on the chlorine car. You are putting people at risk.’“

The National Labor College has taught the basics of hazmat safety to almost 20,000 workers, but that composes less than 10 percent of the nation’s rail employees. Cantrell’s program costs about $600,000 annually to operate.

The railroads dispute the charges.

“I take what our friends in the union say generally with a grain of salt, even more so right now because we’re in a very tense negotiations with the (Brakemen, Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen), and some predict we’ll have a work stoppage sometime in 2007,” said Ed Hamberger, president of the Association of American Railroads.

Hamberger points to a program funded by the major freight carriers that’s been designed by professors at Rutgers University to standardize security training. From 2003-2005, 27 facilities belonging to AAR members in 16 states were tagged for training defects, but Hamberger believes all employees at the largest carriers will be fully trained by the end of 2007.

Monday, January 15, 2007

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