Latest FRA emergency order off the mark

In a bold step, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has set a November 22 deadline for an emergency order mandating that Union Pacific, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Norfolk Southern, CSX and all other railroads take specific and immediate steps to fix a growing safety problem which has lead to an increasing number of train accidents, resulting in nine serious train crashes, ten fatalities and injuries to more than 600 people since January of 2005. Under the Emergency Order, any railroad company, supervisor or employee who violates the procedures mandated in the order may be liable for a civil penalty of up to $27,000.

While the Teamsters believe this is a sign that the FRA is finally addressing some of the rail safety issues brought to light in the Rail Conference's recent report "High Alert," this Emergency Order fails to directly address three critical issues:

1. The Emergency Order fails to address the root cause of these preventable accidents: the inherent deficiencies of dark territory operations and non-monitored switches;

2. The Emergency Order fails to address the rail carriers' work rules, which create an overworked and fatigued workforce, becoming a contributing factor in the occurrence of these types of accidents because redundant safety systems are not in place; and

3. The Emergency Order fails to address the rail carriers' lack of thorough and comprehensive worker training to deal with hazardous chemical emergencies, and the carriers' failure to provide the appropriate training and equipment with which workers can protect themselves and the community in the event of accidents and toxic chemical releases.

"While we applaud the FRA for taking action, this is but a baby step in the right direction," said John Murphy, Director of the Teamsters Rail Conference. "This is a stop-gap measure at best that fails to address the root cause of these preventable accidents. Until the FRA affirmatively addresses the inherent deficiencies of dark territory and non-monitored switches, they will not have addressed the problem. Until the FRA affirmatively addresses the issues of crew fatigue, work/rest schedules, manpower shortages, and operating rule deficiencies, the problem will not be solved. The rail carriers all too often hide behind an excuse of 'worker error' in these tragic accidents, yet it is the carriers' own operating rules and work rules that are the root cause of many of these accidents in dark territory."

The hand-operated track switches that the FRA refers to in its Emergency Order are those in "dark territory." These switches exist in areas of track that are not tied into an electronic signaling system that can monitor and report switch positions. While earning record profits, the rail corporations have failed to invest in readily available safety systems that can provide train crews and train dispatchers with advance notice of switch positioning. Such technology has been around for decades, but rail carriers such as Union Pacific, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Norfolk Southern, and CSX, while enjoying record profits, have not made the investment to improve the safety of dark territory operations, thereby endangering rail workers and the communities they serve.

The Teamsters' Rail Conference will be monitoring and lobbying the FRA and the DOT to address these missing critical elements, which go to the heart of accidents in dark territory.

"While this is but a first step, FRA's Emergency Order should none-the-less serve as a long overdue wake-up call to the rail carriers, who have for too long been left to their own devices," Murphy said. "The rail carriers' safety and security systems are woefully inadequate and the consequences can be devastating. In the hands of the wrong people at the wrong place at the wrong time, it could be catastrophic."


© 2005 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen