Rail safety conference, Richmond California, 14 March 2015

Tesoro Golden Eagle Refinery, Martinez California

The Future of Railroads: Safety, Workers, Community & the Environment” is the title of two back-to-back conferences; the first on Saturday, March 14, 2015 in Richmond, California; the second on Saturday, March 21 in Olympia, Washington.

Everyday a tragic trail derailment occurs, often transporting highly flammable Bakken Shale or Tar Sand, from North Dakota or Alberta, to refineries across North America. The 47 -- preventable-- deaths in Lac-Mégantic has wakened people to the dangers of oil trains and the movement of trains in general through their communities. Environmental activists are up-in-arms about the amounts of fossil fuels moving by rail. Farmers and other shippers are concerned about the congestion that has occurred in recent months, but in part to the oil boom. The rail networks in the U.S. and Canada and clogged with crude-by-rail, displacing the already heavy traffic of grains headed to port for export.

The public generally has no idea what goes on daily on America’s railroads. Chronic crew fatigue, single employee train crews, excessively long and heavy trains, draconian availability policies, short staffing, limited time off work create challenging safety issues of concern not just to railroaders, but to the entire population.

Please join us at this cutting edge conference that brings together railroad workers, environmentalists, community activists and concerned workers from other sectors, in order to build the movement for a safer and greener railroad, on that is more responsive to the needs of workers, trackside communities, citizens in general, and society as a whole.

Richmond is a perfect confluence for this conference as it has always been a company town, first for Santa Fe Railroad as the western terminus of its transcontinental railroad in 1900, then for Standard Oil (later becoming Chevron) in 1901 and its massive refinery complex, and again for Kaiser Industries with its four assembly line-like shipyards in the late 1930s through World War II. From 1910 until 1959 the Pullman Company located its largest West Coast rail car repair shop adjacent to the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe lines in the center of Richmond. It also fronts the San Francisco Bay with access to a channel of 40-60 feet deep, allowing the largest seagoing ships (mostly oil tankers these days) to call its ports. Despite still being the location of the Burlington Northern Sante Fe rail yard and Chevron's massive refinery, Richmond is a bottomed out deindustrialized city that puts its largely working class people of color population in the toxic shadow of oil, chemical and other polluting heavy industries.

In adjacent cities of Rodeo there is the Conoco Phillips Refinery, Benecia has Valero Refinery, and Martinez has both Shell and Tesoro Refineries (the latter currently on strike). They are served by both BNSF and Union Pacific Railroads and maritime wharfs. This area along the San Francisco and San Pablo Bays is statistically known as a "cancer cluster."

Members of the Empire Logistics/Global Supply Chains Study Group will facilitate the following workshop:

    ● Energy Supply Chain Inquiry

    Interactive workshop where all participants will brainstorm ways for solidarity to flow through the various working class sectors down the chains – and model ways for strikes and direct action to spread from the point of extraction to the point of consumption, including the communities where the energy commodities pass through. All necessary materials (maps of rail lines, rail yards, ports & refineries; flowcharts of fossil fuel supply chains; etc.) will be provided.

Other workshops will be:

    Railroading 101
    Single Employee Train Crews
    Importance of Teamwork & Crew Fatigue
    The Problem with Long & Heavy Trains
    Environmentalism 101
    Climate Change & Crude-by-Rail 101
    Political Ecology 101
    Solutionary Rail: A vision for electrified higher-speed rail

If you'd like to participate in either the Richmond or Olympia conference, you can register online:

    for Richmond click: here
    for Olympia click: here

For more information, see the website at www.RailroadConference.org

Posted By

Supply Chain Re...
Feb 27 2015 06:12


  • We need to have faith in each other. We are in precisely the same position. We depend absolutely on each other. We know that without solidarity, nothing is possible, and that with solidarity, nothing is impossible.” —Eugene V. Debs, Founder of the American Railway Union

Attached files


S. Artesian
Mar 20 2015 22:08

So how did it go?

Mar 22 2015 23:31
S. Artesian wrote:
So how did it go?

See the report-back moved here.

S. Artesian
Mar 22 2015 03:08


Mar 22 2015 09:46

Hey, H, this sounds great! Do you think you'd want to publish your post as a report back? Reckon it'd be good to share this stuff more widely..

Mar 22 2015 23:32

See the new post on the Empire Logistics blog.

Mar 22 2015 20:42

Yeah, I just meant as an Empire Logistics blog post (I assumed you were involved with that some how, sorry if not)..

Mar 23 2015 16:54
Report on (Richmond, California) #Railcon15
Submitted by x344543 on Sun, 03/22/2015 - 18:18
By Tom Wetzel - Ideas and Action, March 15, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

More than 120 people attended the Future of Railroads Conference (RailCon15) in Richmond, California, March 14th, organized by Railroad Workers United, with support from local environmental groups and others.

Ron Kaminkow of Railroad Workers United talked about the history of railway worker attempts to build industry wide solidarity and unity, going back to the American Railway Union of Gene Debs in the 1890s. These efforts were stymied by the persistence of the conservative craft unions. The railroads are able to play one craft union off against the other to the detriment of rail workers. Railroad Workers United is an effort to build solidarity and unity of the workers across occupations and unions.

At present operating crews belong to two remaining unions, Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and United Transportation Union (mostly derived from the former Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen). BLE is now affiliated to the Teamsters union and UTU recently merged with the Sheet Metal Workers union to form SMART.

When the UTU recently signed a concessionary agreement with Burlington Northern-Santa Fe (BNSF) in one of its regions, this would have allowed BNSF (owned by Warren Buffett's venture capital firm, Berkshire Hathaway) to go to one-person crews. This would have iced out the engineers union, stabbing them in the back. The RWU organized a "Vote No" campaign among conductors, brakepersons and other UTU members which soundly defeated this destructive proposal by seven to one.

The move from four or five person crews in the 1980s to the two-person crew of today was also brought about by the same type of railroad management strategy of getting one union to sell out the other.

One major focus at the conference was on the railroad industry push for converting to one-person crews for over-the-road freight trains. This would mean the engineer would be all by himself on a mile-long train train hauling perhaps 17,000 tons.

A number of railroad workers explained exactly how destructive this would be. Collisions with vehicles at crossings occur all the time. Last year 900 people in the USA died in grade crossing accidents. At present the second person on the train can deal with the situation on the ground and summon emergency responders while the engineer deals with the train and reporting to the dispatcher, which is the first requirement under their rules. Without the second crew person, it would be harder to respond to the emergency.

With engineers often on-call 24/7, long hours and unstable shifts lead to problems of fatigue which make for a more dangerous situation. Having a second person in the engine helps to keep the engineer awake and alert.

Railroads also have very complicated rule books. As a former engineer explained, it's all designed so that the railroads can say "It's your fault" if an accident happens. This in turn helps to ramp up the stress that workers are under.

All of this reflects the fact that the railroads are not designed to be run in a safe way, but to make profits for the owners.

There was also a contingent of oil refinery workers involved in the current oil refinery strike. A worker from the former ARCO refinery in Los Angeles talked about how safety is the most important issue for refinery workers. The unionized refinery workers currently have a rule where they can shut down a maintenance process if they believe it is not safe. But the oil companies would prefer workers to not have the right to stop the job. He discussed the recent explosion in Torrance and pointed out that, despite Exxon's re-assurances, in fact the explosion dumped highly toxic chemicals over the surrounding neighborhoods. To make a point about this, the refinery workers had a load of horseshit dumped in front of the door of the local Exxon headquarters.

The Empire Logistics study group from San Francisco discussed the way that workers are linked around the world through the movement of goods along the supply chains. To get people thinking about this, each table in the conference was asked to look at how, if they were oil refinery workers, they might look at the supply chain to their refinery to gain solidarity. I was sitting at a table with refinery workers. At the refineries in Los Angeles, the oil typically arrives through pipelines from tankers that unload at the harbor. Gasoline is typically distributed by trucks, but other refined products are shipped by rail. An engineer who is a member of RWU explained how the Railway Labor Act does not ban "hot cargo" -- the act of workers refusing to handle struck goods. So he was explaining how refinery workers could picket the train crew to not pick up or deliver cars to the refinery. This would mean positioning the pickets at the point where the private spur of the refinery meets the railway line.

A large portion of the conference was devoted to speakers from environmental groups and a discussion of issues like a "just transition" away from fossil fuels in a way that would take account of the needs of workers, and disadvantaged communities. At my table a member of the IWW talked about worker control as something to fight for. A retired refinery worker responded by saying that he was always told by management "You have no right to have a say over how we run things." He expressed the view that a just transition is not likely without seizing the assets of the industry...a switch to socialism.

[Andres Soto] from Communities for a Better Environment in Contra Costa County (location of numerous oil refineries) gave a good explanation of how the state bureaucracy, in the form of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, acts to simply provide cover for the toxic pollution of the petroleum industry. The courts also play a role. Thus the air quality district did not give public notice of a new railroad oil terminal and the enviro groups sued when they found out. But the judge tossed out their suit because state law says there is only a 180 day statute of limitations. If you don't uncover hidden machinations within that time, you're out of luck in the legal framework.

After the speaker from CBE a man from United Native Americans (a member of the Lakota tribe) gave a talk in which he talked a little bit about the basis for an indigenous and union alliance, from an indigenous person's viewpoint.

Since I've been an advocate for railroad mainline electrification, I was glad to see a discussion of this proposal, and its environmental and economic advantages. The basic idea is that electricity can be generated without fossil fuels, using renewables. Even as it is today, a ton of freight hauled by rail uses less energy than a ton of freight hauled the same distance by truck. If the railway mainlines were electrified...as they are in Europe, Russia, China...a ton of freight shipped by rail would use only five percent of the energy it takes to move freight on diesel trucks. If electricity is generated through
renewables, this would mean a big drop in the carbon footprint of freight transport.

The particular vision proposed would have grade separated high-speed electrified railway mainlines, making them safer, more efficient and less polluting.

Another issue discussed was the problem of excessive train length. As a former rail worker explained, this leads to huge forces on the couplers that link the cars, which makes trains more vulnerable. Shorter trains would be safer...but require more crews. Companies oppose this because it would raise their labor costs.

If this kind of electrified, high speed, low-carbon railway arrangement were done in the context of a socialized and worker-managed railway, we can see what it could do. But I'm skeptical of this happening any time soon in capitalist USA.

RailCon15 was a step towards bringing different groups of workers and environmentalists together to encourage future solidarity activities.

S. Artesian
Mar 23 2015 19:16
All of this reflects the fact that the railroads are not designed to be run in a safe way, but to make profits for the owners.

Well, you have a problem when you say something like that-- and the problem is demonstrating the proof of your assertion. The empirical data since 1981 gives credence to exactly the opposite view, which free market political economists are quick to point out-- that in fact railroads have become much safer after the Staggers Act (and the recovery from the double dip recession) deregulated railroads and triggered an increase in profits.

Railroads are, by any measure, much much safer than they were 30 years ago, despite the reduction in crew sizes, despite longer and heavier trains. If anybody had data to the contrary, I'd love to see it.

We can confront railroad owners about lots of things-- but claiming that safety is ignored is not the strongest card to play.

Mar 23 2015 20:41

Most railroaders are the first to point out that the Lac-Mégantic disaster happened on the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic (MMA) railroad, a small fry carrier that was notorious for underinvestment, lack of maintenance, and staff cutbacks. I doubt that you'd see Class I railroads neglect their capital investments in the same way.

Here's an interesting analysis of Lac-Mégantic, called The Big Problem with Letting Small Railroads Haul Oil.

This NPR podcast from Fresh Air called "The Risk Of Transporting Oil By Train" interviews Marcus Stern; together with his New York Tims op-ed (March 12, 2015), called "Dangerous Trains, Ageing Rails," they both point out that:

Marcus Stern wrote:
New hydraulic fracturing technology has allowed oil developers to tap vast amounts of deeply buried oil in parts of North Dakota, Montana and Canada. WIthout significant new pipeline capacity, the only way to get the oil to refineries is by train. Rail car shipments of crude oil rose from 9,500 in 2008 to more than 400,000 last year [2014].

Compare Class I to small mom-and-pop railroads for ratio of accidents over time (see original graphic with these stats):

S. Artesian
Mar 23 2015 20:59

Yep, but lack of investment had nothing to do with Lac-Megantic. Violation of "industry-norms," the usual way trains are handled had everything to do with it. You can read the details of the accident and the violations on the Transportation Safety Board of Canada's website.

Simple fact of the matter is that the locomotive engineer, operating as a single person crew, did not apply any, not a single handbrake to any of the tank cars his train was hauling, when he left the train on the main line. In addition, he shut down all the locomotives except the lead unit to supply air pressure to the locomotive air brakes. However, the unit he left running was spewing diesel out the exhaust stack-- circumstances that require the shut-down of that specific locomotive to prevent a fire. The engineer knew that lead locomotive was spewing oil and had reported it to the train dispatcher.

I detest the corporate ethos, and the individuals around the parent of MMA, Railworld, probably more than most, but still, employees have responsibilities in this business. Anybody who thinks the operating rules of a railroad are all about being able to blame the employees simply does not know what he or she is talking about; does not know the evolution of operating rules and train control systems.

Yes, fracked oil shipments have skyrocketed-- but only one production area has provided the oil that has been involved in the overwhelming majority of explosions- Bakken crude in North Dakota.

This oil is so "light," has so much natural gas and natural gas condensates dissolved in it that it is actually more volatile than gasoline, and I can't remember in over 30 years in the industry, ever having gasoline shipped by rail.

As a matter of fact, the North Dakota state regulatory authority has ordered that Bakken crude be stabilized-- reducing the volatility by removing gases-- before shipment. Texas' Eagle Ford and Permian shale have been stabilized prior to shipment as mandated by state law ever since production was initiated. No explosions after derailment have been noted involving oil from these two fields.

However, the issue of rail safety is far broader and deeper than the hauling of Bakken crude. In every category, rail safety in the US has improved dramatically over the last 30 years. For example, the rate of hazardous materials releases (incidents per train mile) is now 1/10th what it was 30 years ago. The problem is we're now running 30,000 car-loads of hazardous materials every week.

But in terms of derailments, collisions, fatalities-- rail safety has been an area of remarkable improvement.

We have to know what we're talking about here. Nothing gives us a pass when it comes to knowing the empirical data of what is actually going on.

Mar 24 2015 01:47

Fair enough, but the railroad engineers and conductors are referring to conditions that are not just limited to a single industry. And it's also not limited to certain industries, heavy or otherwise, as it's a trend within capitalism to maximize the extraction of surplus value at the expense of working class human beings.

For railroaders, from our first-hand discussions with them, the main negative effects of safety on the railroads are due to crew fatigue from random schedules and complete disruption of healthy sleep cycles. As was pointed out in the conference report-back, this applies in exactly the same way to refinery and power plant workers. I just started reading Ted Genoways' The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food last night and already within the first few pages one reads of immigrant Hormel meat processing workers who make Spam in Austin, MN who faced a speed up from 1,000 to 1,300 hogs butchered per hour. The sensationalized result the author presents: an index finger cut off by a saw. As the work process intensifies, either through irregular as-needed schedules or literal speed-ups, the toll is the same. Just read up on the quotas for pickers at Amazon distribution centers or the inhuman work pace at the new VW plant in Chattanooga, TN. Or how some industries reward workers for not reporting workplace injuries with blame-the-worker safety programs, even going so far as offering prizes like gift certificates, watches, jackets with safety logos, wall clocks and other crap as rewards for stretches without accidents.

Even though at-grade accidents by trains are going down (if they actually are), killing one person stuck at a crossing is one too many. Every single engineer and conductor at the conference had hit cars or people at crossings. One retired BNSF engineer had been in 18 of these accidents during his worklife. He said the last one threw him into deep depression, bordering on PTSD. All other railroaders had similar horror stories. Not every small town even has crossbucks, lights or crossing gates, light years away from solutions like the $2.4 billion it took to eliminate just under 200 at-grade crossings with the Alameda Corridor that connects the LA/Long Beach port complex with rail yards east of downtown LA. There are still thousands of these dangerous unprotected crossings all over North America.

And the DOT 111 tank cars presently being used for transporting crude were designed in the 1960s for materials like corn syrup, wax and tallow, not for any kind of crude oil or flammable liquids. Even the 1232 tank cars -- also known as DOT 111s with 5-mile-an-hour bumpers -- are exploding during derailments. The shale and tar sands boom has thrown all caution to the wind. Something incompetent is going on here.

Capitalist conditions are felt by the rank-and-file directly, regardless of what statistics the industry or government regulatory agency churn out.

S. Artesian
Mar 24 2015 02:54

The post I referred to claimed

All of this reflects the fact that the railroads are not designed to be run in a safe way, but to make profits for the owners.

FRA maintains extensive and intensive databases on accidents, injuries, collisions, derailments fatalities. That data indicates dramatic improvements in railroad operating safety. Having worked in the freight rail industry, I know about working the extra board, and being subject to "call" 24 hours a day.

Attempts are being made to mitigate crew fatigue-- how effective they are we'll see in years ahead.

My original point is, and remains, to claim safety in railroad operations has been degraded by 1) longer trains 2) heavier trains 3) reduced crews 4) the need for increased profits is refuted by the actual operating safety performance of US railroads in the past 30 years.

Let me give you an example. I read an article where a locomotive engineer claimed that the increased derailments of crude-by-rail (CBR) trains was a product of railroad management drive to economize on the use of fuel and avoid controlling the train speed by using the automatic air brakes, instead utilizing the train dynamic braking-- where the traction motors that propel the train are essentially used like gears, downshifting, and instead of applying current to generate motion, motion is used to generate current, and the electrical current is dissipated as heat. The train's own resistance is used to decelerate.

This, according, to the author, creates excessive in-train (called "draft") forces, also called "slack action" which makes the train unstable and facilitates derailment.

Sounds plausible, particularly to those who know nothing about locomotives, in-train forces, and the causes of derailments. And sounds plausible to those who don't realize that every locomotive used in main line service is equipped with an event recorder that tracks throttle position, air braking, dynamic braking, train speed, traction motor currents etc. etc.

All of which means, we can evaluate the claim that railroad management's "drive to economize" and requirement for the use of dynamic braking has increased the likelihood of derailment.

We know it played no role in the Lac Megantic tragedy. From the information available, it did not play a role in either derailment in North Dakota, one of which led to an explosion and fire, and one didn't. I'd love to see an event recorder download that shows the derailment caused by use of the dynamic brake setting up a "harmonic" that leads to derailment.

The point is before we make claims, we better be relying on data, and not ideology. Otherwise, you look like a fool. And the rank and file will recognize that in a heartbeat.

Mar 24 2015 04:09

Is this the account by an engineer you're referring to?

Bubba Brown wrote:
I think all of you are trying to make this phenomena more complicated than what I believe it really is. When I started railroading as a hoghead, there was much emphasis placed on train handling from the standpoint of controlling slack action. There wasn’t a great push toward fuel conservation then as now. Air brakes were used extensively toward this control of slack action in those days largely because of occupied cabooses, but as a result, reduction of slack action reduced damages to both freight cars and lading. Heavy slack action occurring at various undulations, causes a downward pounding and at curves produces a heavy lateral pounding which relates adversely to track alignment. When multiple cars loaded with sloshing liquids are handled with dynamic braking and throttle modulation instead of lightly stretching them, their lading takes on a harmonic effect thereby producing “waves” of slack action which adversely affect track alignment and the resultant derailments. The same hogheads that can successfully handle a double stack train use those same principles to operate an oil train (largely due to fuel saving practices) and produce horrible results. The current population of hogheads have been poorly trained in the use of air brakes (read non-existent here) toward train handling, with all emphasis placed on fuel conservation. I predicted when I retired that we’d be witnessing more accidents and more fatalities stemming from the rail industry’s reluctance to use the air and discipline assessment because of it, as the hogheads are scared to use the air.

These are my observations and opinions based on 40 years of railroading with about 37 of them as a hoghead. I offer them up as such and don’t really want an argument.


Jon Flanders, who was at the conference, used Bubba Brown's account in an article in Counterpunch called "Listen to the Workers: Exploding Trains and Crude Oil."

The Ideas and Action report-back, and my own on the Empire Logistics blog, are based on hearing these accounts first-hand from hogheads and other rank-and-file railroad workers at the conference.

Mar 24 2015 11:38

Twenty-six years ago today the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound in Alaska, spilling 257,000 barrels of crude into pristine nature -- and it spread over 1,300 miles of coastline and killed over 250,000 birds and other species. The cause?

Here's one account:

The lessons here are many, starting with a minimum sized crew that was tired and a captain who momentarily lost track of his priorities as he felt the need (pressure?) to send a message to the home office in the middle of the night, that nobody would read anyway until the next day. And as if the message carried some earth shattering news.....
It's my own opinion that we really haven't learned from that experience, at least with regard to crew fatigue as the prime suspect to most accidents that occur still today. Regulatory authorities pat themselves on the back for a job well done in slicing up the 24 hour day into ever more segments of time that the (overworked) crew must obtain an adequate amount of "mandatory" rest. But most seafarers sailing aboard coastwise vessels (tugs-barges, OSV's, containerships, tankers) will laugh at the presumption of getting a solid, uninterrupted amount of sleep between watch standing, cargo op's, and arrivals-departures. Then there is that 'mandatory' OT thing, paperwork for officers that seems to never end, and of course, just as with Hazelwood, attending to the reams of messages in the form of emails from everyone onshore who is demanding something from the captain....immediately.
I believe the industry truly is NOT operating much differently today than when it was back in 1989 when the Valdez met her doom. As long as regulators continue to allow the least amount of people aboard a vessel to perform the most amount of work, we'll continue down the same path as we have since before the infamous grounding of the Exxon Valdez. Mandating larger crews to do all the work required aboard any given vessel on many (most) voyages is the answer to reducing crew fatigue. We already know that from 100's of studies, reports, white papers, and countless analyses by everyone concerned (that largely sit unread on most bookshelves after their release). In spite of all those efforts, I'm unaware of any entity discussing "increasing" crew sizes. Nope. Just the opposite. In fact, your basic tanker today has just as many crew as the Valdez did when she went aground...or less.
Have we learned from these lessons? After 26 years the answer appears to be, no.

Ditto for the railroad industry. You can't safely have fewer workers doing more work while chronically fatigued, operating longer and heavier trains, carrying highly explosive Bakken crude, without creating recipes for disaster that are the fiery railroad equivalent of the Exxon Valdez.

Ten years ago yesterday (March 23, 2015), the BP Refinery in Texas City, TX exploded, killing 15 workers. The causes?

    • BP had cut the budget for training and reduced staff
    • corporate cost-cutting, a failure to invest in the plant infrastructure, a lack of corporate oversight on both safety culture and major accident prevention programs, a focus on occupational safety and not process safety, the inadequate training of operators, a lack of competent supervision for start-up operations, poor communications between individuals and departments and the use of outdated and ineffective work procedures which were often not followed

These accidents -- in rail, maritime, refining, meatpacking, heavy industry, distribution, etc., etc. -- are the industry norms, not exceptions.

Here's an interesting account by labor writer Steve Early, called "Future Blast Zones? How Crude-By-Rail Puts U.S. Communities At Risk," about the dangers in Richmond, California.

S. Artesian
Mar 24 2015 12:41

Yes, that's the account (about CBR derailments) I'm referring to. If you look at the data available, the accident reports generated by the NTSB investigating the derailments that have caused DOT 111 tank car ruptures, dynamic braking is not the cause of the derailment-- broken rails under movement, flooding and wash-out of the track bed, derailment of a passing train with those cars striking the tank cars of the train on the adjacent track etc. etc., but I've found no indications that dynamic braking set up a dangerous harmonic that caused the derailment.

Fatigue is a serious issue and FRA recently instituted new regulations in an attempt at mitigation. We can claim that such regulations are "inadequate," but I'd urge a bit of caution. FRA regulations have proven very effective in reducing causes of accidents.

To argue, however, that longer, heavier trains are a threat to safety is amply refuted by the railroad operating performance over the last 30 years.

NTSB maintains a database of rail accident investigations on its website http://ntsb.gov/investigations/AccidentReports/Pages/railroad.aspx. Worth looking at.

Mar 25 2015 20:43