A message from Teamsters President Jim Hoffa
A year on the rails
Little has changed on America's railways since the tragic rail crash in Graniteville, S.C., one year ago that claimed nine lives, sickened hundreds and forced thousands from their homes.
The horrific train crash was the deadliest in nearly 30 years, spewing a poisonous cloud of chlorine gas over a community that still struggles today in the aftermath. Residents blame the toxic chemical for headaches and breathing problems. A local textile mill was forced to lay off 350 workers because of damage to machinery. Yet the rail companies remain in denial about the numerous safety and security gaps threatening our nation's towns and cities, the riding public and rail workers.
On this one-year anniversary of Graniteville, our thoughts are with the families whose loved ones perished - people like Steve Seeling, whose son Chris was the locomotive engineer who died after inhaling the toxic gas fumes. He was 28 years old.
"The rail corporations' lack of follow-through shows the lack of respect they have for their employees and the public they serve," Steve Seeling says.
If the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks weren't a wake-up call, then Graniteville should be. I believe the best way to honor Chris and others who died is to do everything in our power to prevent another tragedy.
Rail security is a perilous vulnerability in the security of our homeland. But every day, we ask rail employees to work without the necessary training or the assurance that something is being done. We ask passengers and communities to simply hope for the best. Next time, the catastrophe may involve terrorists or occur in a major metropolitan area. We should not be blind to the possibility.
After Graniteville, the National Transportation Safety Board urged rail companies to take steps to prevent another catastrophe, such as reducing speeds through populous areas and positioning tank cars carrying toxic chemicals where they are less likely to be impacted.
The NTSB said a misaligned switch was the cause of the crash. The train was in "dark territory," so there were no electronic or lighted signals indicating the position of the switches or the condition of the track. About 40 percent of the nation's rail system is in "dark territory." The agency recommended that rail companies install automatic devices that will display the status of switches, both day and night.
The rail corporations' lack of response has been deafening. The NTSB can only recommend changes, not force them, and it is clear the railroads will not respond out of concern for public safety.
The Federal Railroad Administration must fast track the NTSB recommendations. They deserve urgent attention now. And if government regulators won't make rail safety and security a priority, then Congress should. In the wake of 9/11, Congress was charged with filling the holes in homeland security. We cannot continue to let corporations and their high-paid lobbyists stand in the way of keeping that promise to the American people.
Part of the overall solution must be a commitment to include rail workers in any and all emergency plans, a critical piece to more secure and safe rail system. No computer chip can ever replace a highly trained railroad employee who knows their engine, cab car, track line, switch, bridge and tunnel. Cutting costs should never come at the expense of human lives.
James P. Hoffa
© 2006 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen