A message from Teamsters General President James P. Hoffa
January 6, 2007, marked the two-year anniversary of the deadliest hazardous materials accident in years. Graniteville, S.C., had not seen the face of human tragedy in this magnitude. Similar cities and towns across America host freight trains laden with hazardous materials each and every day.
Safety training for rail employees, and rail security measures in general, have been given short shrift by the Bush Administration. For example, the Transportation Security Department's (TSA) recent proposals for rail transport of hazardous materials falls far short when it comes to the safety of its employees and the public. Although the proposed rules bring some of the dangers of hazardous materials storage to light, they do not address quality safety and emergency response training for rail employees. We want the new Congress to pass legislation that will compel rail corporations to train their employees on proper safety and evacuation procedures, the use of appropriate emergency escape apparatus, and the special handling of hazardous materials.
Engineers, trainmen and track maintenance workers are the true first responders to rail emergencies. They, like Chris Seeling, the engineer guiding the train in South Carolina in 2005, are the first on the scene, and often the last to leave. Yet, the rail corporations do not have quality safety and security training for employees in place.
Despite 9/11 occurring more than five years ago, the White House has not given rail security the importance it requires, budgetary or otherwise. Although the statistics illustrate that there are five times as many rail passengers per day than air, the airlines have received the lion's share of security funding resources - nearly $19 billion since 9/11, compared to $250 million for all other modes of transportation, including rail. There is no coordinator for rail security in the TSA, nor is there a specific rail security expert assigned to the Northeast Corridor, the most heavily traversed section of the Amtrak passenger rail system. The tragedies in Mumbai, India, London and Madrid apparently weren't enough to convince the Administration that rail security and the safety of rail employees and the public is something to take seriously. Just when, we ask, will the time come?
We are encouraged by Congressman Bennie Thompson's new leadership in the House's Committee on Homeland Security. Rep. Thompson has been a strong advocate for addressing rail safety and security weaknesses, particularly in his committee's report, "Detour Ahead." Many other members of Congress have introduced rail safety legislation, too, at the urging of their constituents. The state of California was the first state, last year, to pass a comprehensive local community rail security law. In addition to requiring clear emergency response plans, the law provides "whistle-blower" protection to any rail employees who report lapses in security by the rail companies. Carriers will be subject to fines and civil damages of up to $1 million for employees who experience any retribution by the company.
Towns and cities across America need to know what is being moved through their cities and must be prepared to respond in the event of an unimaginable tragedy on the rails. And, the men and women who work on the rails need to have quality hazmat and emergency response training to improve the likelihood that their hazardous cargoes will not impact the thousands of communities situated along the railroad right of way. The safety of everyone depends on it.
© 2007 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen