Wreck of Amtrak #188: talking points from RWU

Fix the hazards; dont blame the victims

On May 12, 2015, an Amtrak Northeast Regional train bound for New York City from Washington DC derailed and crashed on the Northeast Corridor in the Port Richmond neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Eight were killed and over 200 injured, 11 critically. The train was traveling at 102 mph (164 km/h) on a curved track in a 50 mph (80 km/h) zone when it derailed. Below are talking points from RWU.

Talking Points from Railroad Workers United

It has been a week now since Amtrak Train #188 derailed at speed east of Philadelphia, PA. The last week has witnessed endless speculation as the official investigation into the cause of the derailment continues apace. Those of us in the rail industry anxiously await the findings. Meantime, regardless of what the NTSB, the FBI and other agencies discover and conclude about the tragic wreck, there are a number of facts that are worth considering.

    1 – It is roundly agreed by railroad executives, union officials and industry insiders that had Positive Train Control (PTC) been in place and in effect on this section of track, the wreck would most likely not have been possible. PTC would have resulted in a train brake application in order to slow the train, recognizing that its speed was excessive and therefore unable to negotiate the tight curve ahead. PTC has been mandated by Congress, but its complete implementation has been delayed on the Northeast Corridor and elsewhere for a myriad of reasons. In Amtrak’s case, one of these reasons is a lack of adequate funding from Congress.
    2 – Amtrak has been underfunded for decades and forced to scrape by, cutting corners and deferring maintenance, even under the microscope by a budget cutting Congress more concerned with ideological purity and political expediency than with safety and security. On the busy Northeast Corridor where the recent wreck took place, Amtrak faces a backlog of drastically needed repairs to bridges and tunnels, obsolete rail interlockings, and trains that rely at times on 1930s-era components. Repairs for the Northeast Corridor are estimated at 4.3 billion over the next 45 years, while federal funding is expected to dwindle to $872 million.
    3 – As a result of this constant pressure to reduce costs, on March 23rd, 2015, just six weeks prior to the wreck, Amtrak had unilaterally implemented a new scheduling arrangement for Corridor (NEC) train and engine crews over the vehement objections of its operating craft unions – the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLET) and the United Transportation Union (UTU, now known as SMART-TD). The new schedule arrangements – designed to save the company $3 million by reducing scheduled layovers -- were condemned by both unions as a disaster in the making. Amtrak overturned a tried and true couplet system (trains paired out and back) for working crews in the NEC that had been in effect, with little modification, for decades. Prior to March 23rd, couplets adhered to the 90-minute layover minimum and took into account other factors including difficulty of the train in question, duration of trip, number and location of stops, timeliness etc. Now, not only has the 90-minute layover been scrapped, but crews have no guarantee of any break whatsoever! In addition, the new arrangement allows for a different on-duty time each day of the work week, and these start times are no longer restricted to within a few hours of one another -- they can be any time of the day!
    4 – Simple technology has existed for nearly a century now that can aid and assist in preventing accidents such as this one. As with the wreck at Spuyten-Duyvil, NY on the Metro North railroad on December 1st, 2013, a simple transponder could have easily been located west of the curve that would have prevented the train from entering it at such an excess speed (in fact, such a transponder is in place on the approach to the curve in the westbound direction). This being one the tightest and most restricted curves on the corridor, it seems an appropriate location for such a life-saving device. Note: Since the above referenced MN wreck of, such a transponder has in fact been placed on the section of track leading to the 30 mph curve where that train derailed.
    5 – Amtrak Train #188 – operated by lone engineer Brandon Bostian, entered the permanent speed restriction at the curve, rated for 55, at over 100 mph. Whether it was fatigue, the result of a projectile that hit the train, inattentiveness on the part of the engineer, or other factors at play, it is expected that the investigation will eventually pinpoint the cause. Nevertheless, there is the possibility that we may never know. But we know this: had there been a second crew member in the cab of the locomotive that day, it is very likely that such a second qualified crew member would have taken action to prevent the tragedy that – for whatever reason – the engineer at the controls was not able to avert.

In the past half dozen years or so we have witnessed a series of tragic train wrecks, all of which have resulted in countless injuries and loss of life. Four wrecks – Chatsworth, CA (9/12/08); Lac Megantic, Quebec (7/6/13); Spuyten-Duyvil, NY (12/1/13); and now Frankfurt Junction, PA (5/12/15) have all been attributed to some form of “operator error”. (It is worthy of mention a factor that all four of these incidents had in common; i.e. the employee in question was working alone in the cab of the locomotive or was the lone crew member). While operator error may in fact be the case, simply pointing the finger at the worker does little or nothing to assist in understanding why the error was made in the first place; nor does it help us to prevent similar such wrecks in the future. Since workers are human beings and as such, are prone to make mistakes (regardless of how many rules are written up, what discipline may be threatened or how many observation cameras may be installed), we must implement safety features that take this reality into account and thereby prevent tragedies of this nature.

Railroad Workers United believes that a series of simple common-sense applications would go a long way to preventing such devastating train wrecks like the ones listed above. These include:

    1 – The application of Positive Train Control (PTC) as soon as possible on major rail routes.
    2 – In the meantime, application of off-the-shelf readily available technology at critical locations where passenger trains are particularly vulnerable.
    3 – A minimum of two qualified employees – at least one certified locomotive engineer and one certified train conductor – on each and every train.
    4 – A guarantee of adequate and proper rest, together with reasonable attendance policies and provision for necessary time off work, for all train and engine employees.
    5 – Limiting the length and tonnage of freight trains to a reasonable and manageable level.
    6 – The implementation of safety programs on all railroads that focus on hazard identification and elimination, rather than simply focus on worker behavior.
    7 – Strengthening of OSHA “whistleblower” and other laws to empower employees to report injuries, workplace hazards and safety violations without fear of company reprisal.

If we are serious about preventing future catastrophes of this nature, we must equip railroad workers with the necessary tools – including but not limited to those outlined above -- to enable them to perform the job safely. Pointing fingers at this or that employee (at any level in the company, union or management) might make some folks feel better, but it does little or nothing to prevent future accidents. Railroad Workers United believes it is time we learn from these terrible tragedies and get serious about implementing the necessary measures to ensure safe railroad operations.

For inquiries send an email to secretary@railroadworkersunited.org

Posted By

Supply Chain Re...
May 20 2015 03:35


  • If we are serious about preventing future catastrophes of this nature, we must equip railroad workers with the necessary tools to enable them to perform the job safely."

    —Railroad Workers United

Attached files


May 24 2015 03:53
S. Artesian wrote:
Train length and weight are "unsafe." Where's the data for that?

Wall Street Journal (February 5, 2014) "Lawsuits Shine Spotlight on Railcar Safety: Railroads Charge Faulty Repair Work Led to Several Derailments," bringing up not only the safety dangers of outsourcing, but also how increasing weights on coal cars operated continuously create derailment risks as their Class F axles wear out and fail:

WSJ wrote:
Raymond Hasiak, a Union Pacific lawyer, argued in a federal-district court in Omaha last June that repair firms like Progress Rail take on the role of "gatekeeper," determining which wheels and axles are safe to continue using. "Everybody depends upon them to look at the axles and determine this is an axle that is appropriate to be put back into service," Mr. Hasiak said, adding that "the safety of all the rails in North America [is] dependent upon this."

A lawyer for Progress Rail, Michael Coyle, said the company wasn't responsible for the derailments cited in the lawsuit and had carefully followed procedures mandated by the Association of American Railroads, a trade group. "We do it exactly the way the American Association of Railroads…tells us how to do it," Mr. Coyle said.

In the Omaha court case, Union Pacific sued Progress Rail for about $5 million in damages arising from two derailments of trains hauling coal, one in DeWitt, Iowa, in July 2007 and another near Martin Bay, Neb., in January 2010. In the latter derailment, Union Pacific's Mr. Hasiak told the jury, 33 railcars were "ripped up and thrown all over the landscape." Neither derailment resulted in injuries.

In both cases, Union Pacific alleged that Progress Rail failed to inspect and refurbish axles properly before returning them to service, resulting in axle breakdowns that knocked the trains off the rails.

Progress Rail's Mr. Coyle told the jury the railcars' axles wore out partly because they were supporting weights greater than they were designed to handle. The derailments, he said, had "nothing to do with anything that Progress Rail did."

A jury returned a verdict in favor of Progress Rail last June. Union Pacific has appealed that decision.

During the trial, the two sides argued over whether railroads were allowing too much weight to be put on so-called Class F axles. Those axles were designed to support 263,000 pounds. In the early 1990s, though, railroads began using them for weights of as much as 286,000 pounds as a way to carry more freight.

"They took axles that were forged in the '70s and they decided that, okay, they're designed for 263,000 pounds, let's increase it to 286,000 pounds," Mr. Coyle of Progress Rail told the Omaha court.

A 2006 report from the Transportation Technology Center, an arm of the Association of American Railroads, found that there was a "significant increase" in failures of Class F axles carrying the heavier loads beginning in the early 2000s.

Along with putting more weight on the axles, the railroads were using railcars more intensively, leaving them idle less often, the report found, adding: "Coal cars see nearly continuous operations." At the same time, the report said, railroads had outsourced more of the repair and maintenance of railcars, and ownership of many railcars had shifted from railroads to leasing companies, electric utilities and others. "It is likely that all of these combined factors have contributed something to the increased number of accidents related to axles," the report said.

S. Artesian
May 24 2015 11:32

Read it again, H. This is an issue involving using the proper axles for the loads to be carried. Yes, there was a significant increase in axle failures from carrying loads above the design spec.

So a) this has nothing to do with train length and b) nothing to do with overall train weight.

Reducing the gross tonnage and overall length that any train hauls says, and does, nothing about complying with design specs.

A train of 50 cars, with each car loaded at 140 tons when the axles are rated for 120 tons, is not safer than a train of 200 cars with each car loaded to axle spec at 120 tons.

The RWU program calls for limiting overall train lengths and weights, not insuring that cars are not loaded beyond their specs.

Do shippers load cars beyond their specs, and do railroads accept the overloads in the drive to reduce costs and increase the capital animated by the living labor? Absolutely. This is capitalism.

Do railroads compromise safety in the attempt to maximize profits? As I've already pointed out, of course they do. This is capitalism. Everything railroads do is a compromise between safety and efficiency. This is capitalism. And everything a railroad does under any mode of production will involve some sort of compromise between safety and efficiency. That's the physics of objects in motion. That's how we design systems to mitigate risk. The difference with socialism will be the compromise will be made on the basis of the greater needs of society; not on the basis of private accumulation.

The issues are, does arguing for reduced train lengths and reduced overall tonnage a) enhance safety b) speak to the needs of the class as a whole in the struggle against capitalism.

My answer to both is no. Incidents, accidents,injuries, derailments have steadily declined over the decades as overall train lengths and gross tonnage have increased. Doesn't mean railroads aren't capitalist. Doesn't mean they don't violate specs, or compromise safety. Does mean despite such violations and compromises, railroad safety has been dramatically improved.

IMO, the way RWU has presented the issue and its program leads logically and exclusively to demands for "better regulation;" "better oversight" by the government.

I think the most important task is to develop a program that does not lead, inevitably, to some sort of program leaving initiative in the hands of the government; that does not wind up as a legislative program calling for Congress to spend X to support Amtrak; or Congress to provide X $ for the implementation of PTC; or FRA to develop a new regulation. Doing that is the province of social democrats.

EDIT: I think the real issue in the WSJ piece is not so much the axle loads, but the outsourcing. There is the fundamental attack on labor, and there is where real strategy has to be developed. It's also the point where "improved regulation" programs, break down. Outsourcing has taken on some radical new dimensions with improvement of train control and communication technologies.

It is possible to separate completely, physically, organizationally, corporately, movement control offices from the railroad. You can dispatch trains in Egypt from and office in New York once the communication links are installed. And vice-versa.

Somehow, rather than reverting to "scope of work" arguments, a program has to be developed that unifies "on property" and outsource workers.

May 25 2015 04:51

Artesian, thank you for your response.

But where does RWU say anything about "overall" weight on trains? You said that. Any situation that puts human beings at risk are opposed, not in some policy wonky way, but because people get killed.

And in all due respect, you refer to the RWU "program" but it's not clear if you're assuming that that's their position -- or you're simply inferring it from the piece they wrote about Amtrak in the original post -- or if you heard or read it somewhere. Please clarify.

Program, to me at least, implies organization and leadership and is the default position of the social-democratic-Leninist-left (ya know, "The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of revolutionary leadership," p. 9 in Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International [1938] by Leon Trotsky). Since RWU makes no pretenses to being a revolutionary organization, the point is moot.

When a cross-craft group in 13 unions (and a few more in Canada) and various non-union sectors in North America forms into a solidarity caucus, the purpose is to end the divide-and-conquer methods of management and the concessionary bargaining of union bureaucrats. To me, and speaking only for myself, it's the Chicago Idea -- the idea of class unity best expressed here:

Jame Green wrote:
The first sign of change came in March 1882, when a group of German tanners struck and demanded a wage equal to that of the more skilled English-speaking curriers. When employers refused the demand and the curriers struck in sympathy with the immigrant tanners… the curriers acted not on the basis of “any grievance of their own, but because of a sentimental and sympathetic feeling for another class of workmen.” The sympathy strike even surprised the editor of the of the trades council newspaper, who said it was “something new and wonderful.” The seventy-two-day exercise in solidarity was, according to the Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics, “one of the most remarkable on record, an action “conducted on the principle of the Knights of Labor which proclaims that “an injury to one is the concern of all.” —James Green, Death in the Haymarket, p. 98

It's the same spirit that animated the American Railway Union, the Western Federation of Miners, the Industrial Workers of the World, the Stormy Petrel IAM/SWOC machinists and every struggle that generalized working class solidarity into mass strikes -- a.k.a. general strikes -- with sympathy actions flowing down commodity chains, whether they were the rails in 1877, 1894, and 1946, or at major trucking nodes like in Minneapolis in 1934, or maritime nodes like in 1934 when every West Coast was paralyzed for 83 days and after cops killed two workers, a general strike sparked by longshore workers shut down San Francisco for four days.

Railroaders are hamstrung by the Railway Labor Act (RLA), which restricts collective action (but actually doesn't prohibit secondary boycotts) in ways more restrictive than the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Hence after the tortuous 9-month contract negotiations this year and last between the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA; the collective of container carrier operators, marine terminal operators, shipping associations, and port associations) and the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU) for a contract for the 20,000 workers at 29 container ports on the Pacific coast, right-wingers in Congress are proposing putting longshore workers under the Railway Labor Act (here's a rabid conservative rant demanding that, called "Held Hostage"). The reason? To try to tame their powerful work rules, won in the 1934 San Francisco General Strike, that allowed an unofficial work-to-rule slowdown that brought the busiest ports, like LA/Long Beach and Oakland, to a grinding halt and resulting delays where containers sat idle on the docks for as long as 3 weeks. The capitalist production system operates on a just-in-time logic and this can't be tolerated. But the PMA and ILWU just finalized a 5-year contract that continues to lock in some of those gains for longshore workers into the future.

From the victory in 1934 until the first Modernization & Mechanization Agreement (allowing for the introduction of intermodal cargo containers) in 1960, the ILWU -- like the 9-year run of IWW Local 8 on the docks of Philly from 1913-1922 -- were the "Lords of the Docks." This allowed union control of hiring, dispatch and the work process. In 1934 the ILWU achieved gains like:

Stan Weir wrote:
[The] final major control obtained by the West Coast longshoremen as a result of the 1934 award was the 2,100-pound load limit. No more than that amount of break-bulk cargo was allowed to be hoisted in or out of a hold at any one time on any sling, board, bridle, or net. Beyond being a safety measure, it became a major restriction on the employer's ability to conduct speedups.

The ILWU were able to protect these gains with legal and illegal quickie strikes -- 1,399 of them from 1934 to 1948. So like the longshore workers, getting bosses to not overload train cars -- like allowing 286,000 in cars designed for 263,000 pounds -- is a practical demand of railroad workers. Heavy cars are at a greater risk of axle failure, so they are opposed. All unsafe operating conditions are opposed. RWU doesn't have the contractually guaranteed advantages of the ILWU, but if they are able to unite the rank-and-file in UTU and SMART and the other craft unions and non-union workers, they might be able to exercise similar power on the shopfloor. An ideal? Yes, but not impossible.

Although RWU doesn't claim this explicitly, it does makes sense that if DOT-111 unpressurized tank cars were designed for non-flammable liquids -- like corn syrup, wax and tallow -- they shouldn't be used to haul volatile chemicals like Bakken crude. Even the stronger 1232 tank cars -- also known as "DOT 111s with 5-mile-an-hour bumpers" -- are exploding during derailments. But since the ramping up of fracking, the number of DOT-111 used has gone up astronomically -- from 9,500 in 2008 to more than 400,000 in 2014. If it is conclusively shown that DOT-111 are unsafe to haul any volatile crude, this practice should stop.

Since the Clean Air Act of 1970 mandated lower sulfur coal to prevent acid rain, the use of Powder River Basin sub-bituminous coal has made it the biggest cluster of open pit mines in the world. The mines are accessed by way of the Orin Line, the busiest train line in the world with 4 tracks carrying at least 100 empty and full unit trains per day. Some are as long as 2 miles and weigh as much as 15,000 tons. If those 110+ cars are each overloaded -- beyond specs -- and this causes their Class F axles to fail, this practice of overloading should be discontinued.

Why are long trains opposed?:

    1. Long and heavy trains create an unsafe situation for many reasons. It takes far more time and distance to slow or to stop such a train. And the longer and heavier the train, the more severe the “slack action,” thereby increasing the potential for a train break-in-two, emergency brake applications and derailments. In addition, the longer and heavier the train, the more severe the train wreck if and when such a train does derail. Long trains are more likely to have air brake problems, especially in cold and inclement weather. And all things considered, it is more difficult for the train crew to safely run, inspect, work, test, and otherwise operate such a train. Therefore, it follows that reducing train length and tonnage would undoubtedly result in an all around “risk reduction” for the train and its crew.
    2. The longer and heavier the train, the greater likelihood of blocked road and pedestrian crossings, creating at best an inconvenience to the public, and at worst the inability to provide emergency services when crossings are blocked. In addition, blocked crossing in effect “train” motorists to “run the gates” in order to avoid being impeded for what might be long periods, resulting in grade crossing accidents and fatalities.
    3. Long trains tend to increase the number of hours the train’s crew spends getting the train in and out of the terminal and over the road, making for exhausting tours-of-duty for train crews. The result is more crew fatigue, reduced situational awareness, more time at the away-from-home terminal, and a lower quality of work and home life for trainmen and engineers.

The demand that unsafe conditions be eliminated is to protect workers and fenceline communities. In April (the last month for which I could find statistics) at least 5 railroad workers were killed on the job. Human error or not, that's 5 workers too many. Artesian, you obviously can prove that over the last 30 years that's demographically a decrease. You're right, but it's still 5 workers too many.

Contrast this with workplace safety of the ILWU. They obviously have a stronger grievance procedure and in most cases, can shut the docks if something's unsafe. Likewise, if a longshore workers dies on the job -- for any reason -- all work stops for the day. Just look at any West Coast port at lunchtime; the entire process of stevedoring shuts down entirely. Is this inefficient, in the capitalist logic of moving goods? Fuck yes! But it comes out of class power from generations before, codified into contractual gains that have been preserved. ILWU longshore workers are rarely bullied by their bosses, which is something we should all aspire to.

But we should see the whole earth as the shopfloor and production as taking place in this supply chain-driven social factory as sectors blur in a just-in-time system of contracting and subcontracting across the planet. Then the need becomes solidarity that crosses all sectors along the commodity chain, be it workers extracting raw materials, transportation workers moving them by pipeline, truck, train, ship, barge or plane, then to processing and manufacturing, while transporting, loading and unloading them -- often intermodally -- along these global assembly lines, before they make it to the point of consumption -- having crossed borders, oceans and even continents -- and more and more frequently using the internet to coordinate deliveries right to our doorsteps. Solidarity actions need to go beyond the single regions characteristic of the Fordist Era and should be carried forward by the working class arrayed at these various these nodal points of the global supply chain.

May 25 2015 04:43
Hieronymous wrote:
Any situation that puts human beings at risk are opposed, not in some policy wonky way, but because people get killed.

And let's not be anthropocentric. If we're anti-capitalists, how can we oppose capital's destructiveness to all life? And critique how capitalist production makes human life and the natural resources of the planet externalities? Certainly not by social-democratic reforms, which simply smooth the contradictions without changing a thing. Green factories, ecologically sound modes of production and electrified rail beget green prisons and different variations of the same alienated existence.

Here's a more lucid expression of the contradiction:

Will Barnes wrote:
The movement of capital, and the social and natural transformations it generates, are borne along by an objective logic whose outcome is necessarily the very destruction of the natural world in its autonomy, cohesion, and otherness, that is, in its abiotic coherence, as living, and as a presupposition of specifically human life.

How can struggles in the present avert damage like the recent Refugio Beach oil pipeline rupture and spill in Southern California, where a simple cut-off valve would had prevented the second massive oil spill in Santa Barbara Channel in 45 years? Plains All American Pipeline gamed the regulations, avoiding the local county ones by deferring to federal rules to cut costs on safety equipment and procedures. This shell game happens all the time, whether with occupational health and safety laws or other restrictions on ecological destruction.

This is a sincere question: how can class struggle incorporate ecological and human safety in a non-reformist way? (the only example that comes to mind are the petrochemical worker-militants at Porto Maghera in Italy in the 1960s & 1970s, but that was long ago)

S. Artesian
May 25 2015 11:37

(1) Here's what RWU wrote:

5 – Limiting the length and tonnage of freight trains to a reasonable and manageable level.

Length and tonnage of a train are cumulative. As I said a 3000 foot, 7000 ton train that has particular cars overloaded beyond design spec is not as safe as a 12,000 foot 15, 000 ton train where the loads comply with design spec.

(2) "program"--- excuse the choice of a catch-all word for policy, or discussion points, or suggestions, or demands, or advocacy. Whatever your ideological interpretation is, it's your ideological interpretation.

(3)quite agree with the class solidarity, which means that "program" or suggestions or demands must move beyond the craft, trade union level. I don't read that in the RWU material that's been reproduced here. I wish I saw something that attacked wage differentials for employees assigned to different functions, or even the same functions..

(4) re

So like the longshore workers, getting bosses to not overload train cars -- like allowing 286,000 in cars designed for 263,000 pounds -- is a practical demand of railroad workers.

Ypu said that. RWU did NOT say that. RWU said limit length and weight of trains [not cars] to a "reasonable" standard. So is a train made up of 60 cars a reasonable length? And if the cars each weigh 315,000 pounds when loaded, and are designed to handle that load, is that reasonable? Is a 150 car train a "reasonable length" when distributed power is used (placing remotely controlled locomotives at locations within the entire train to minimize draft forces ("slack action")?


Although RWU doesn't claim this explicitly, it does makes sense that if DOT-111 unpressurized tank cars were designed for non-flammable liquids -- like corn syrup, wax and tallow -- they shouldn't be used to haul volatile chemicals like Bakken crude. Even the stronger 1232 tank cars -- also known as "DOT 111s with 5-mile-an-hour bumpers" -- are exploding during derailments. But since the ramping up of fracking, the number of DOT-111 used has gone up astronomically -- from 9,500 in 2008 to more than 400,000 in 2014. If it is conclusively shown that DOT-111 are unsafe to haul any volatile crude, this practice should stop.

Absolutely, positively agree. DOT 111 and 111A tank cars should not be used to transport ethanol and fracked oil. Been saying that for years in my role as operating officer. However, railroads don't make that determination. US DOT does. For about 25 years, NTSB has been pointing out the failure rate of DOT 111 tank cars. DOT 111s should be prohibited from transporting flammable materials. But again RWU doesn't say that. You do. I do. NTSB does. Senator Schumer does. Wish RWU did.


Long and heavy trains create an unsafe situation for many reasons. It takes far more time and distance to slow or to stop such a train. And the longer and heavier the train, the more severe the “slack action,” thereby increasing the potential for a train break-in-two, emergency brake applications and derailments. In addition, the longer and heavier the train, the more severe the train wreck if and when such a train does derail. Long trains are more likely to have air brake problems, especially in cold and inclement weather. And all things considered, it is more difficult for the train crew to safely run, inspect, work, test, and otherwise operate such a train. Therefore, it follows that reducing train length and tonnage would undoubtedly result in an all around “risk reduction” for the train and its crew.

Not quite. What you're leaving out here is that in capitalism technology advances behind or sometimes ahead of the drive to accumulate. So, for example, with radio control technology, distributed power can put locomotives at various locations in the train, essentially breaking into 3 or 4 separate trains, all sharing a mechanical and pneumatic connection, but with distributed power "smoothing" the in-train forces so that derailments are no less likely from draft forces than for a shorter train.

Not quite. Software databases of the track geometry, speed conditions, etc. are loaded into many locomotives prior to departure. The engineer has a continuous graphic display that identifies areas that require specific applications of brake and throttle to maintain the "smoothness" of the in train forces.

Of course, railroad management seeks to develop this technology for reasons of profit and economizing. I believe GE's "trip optimizer" software is being rolled out that indicates precisely where, and how much, brake or throttle should be applied at any given location to a)comply with maximum authorized speeds and b) minimize train handling issues.

Not quite. Train separation, train stopping is based on calculations of safe braking distance-- where signal controls (essentially warnings, "previews" to the crew) are coded and spaced to reduce the speed of the train to ZERO from the MAXIMUM AUTHORIZED SPEED (MAS) given crew compliance with the timetable speed restrictions and the signal indications. We call this the "signal design distance: Therefore, if a longer heavier, train cannot comply with the signal design distance, then the maximum speed, and the intermediate allowable speeds when signals require slowing are REDUCED to comply with safe train separation, and the safe braking distance. Same principle that says passenger trains can go 100 mph on 100 mph track, but freight trains can only go 40 mph. Again, advanced train control technologies will enforce these speeds in the event of human error.

Does this mean that perhaps a 15,000 ton train operating at 30 mph can't stop if a car or a truck "runs" the grade crossing? Absolutely. But a 5000 ton train operating at 60 mph won't be able to stop either. The point isn't to stop the train, but to stop the vehicle from entering the crossing.

Not quite: If we abstract from physics, not considering peculiarities of terrain, and population density, and build up along the right of way, damage in a derailment is a function of energy. Energy is proportional to the weight of the train, but a function of the square of the velocity. Yes a 15,000 ton train at 30 mph will transmit more energy than a 6000 ton train at 30 mph, but not as much as a 6000 ton train at 60 mph. The point again is that defining a "reasonable length and weight" depends upon physics, upon technology, upon the advancement of knowledge which depends on experience.

Not quite: Long trains are subject to air problems in cold weather yes, which is why every Class 1 railroad has matrices of maximum train lengths and weights for specific temperature ranges. Railroads already limit train length in extreme weather conditions.

(7) Grade crossings: Yes, longer trains block grade crossings when the operate over the crossings, or when they are stopped. However, the particulars of adjusting train length to accommodate road crossing, and all the varying distances between road crossings would make for a Sisyphean task, given that a single train of the "correct length" can stop at any given point, not blocking a crossing, but the following train, again of the correct length would then have to stop and that second train will block the crossing. It's a real problem in railroading that is not however easily mitigated by simply saying "we need to reduce train size to a reasonable length."

The only certain mitigation is doing away with at grade crossings, something that will truly take a socialist revolution.

And please, don't tell me the railroads are responsible for drivers running the gates. People run gates. That's not because a train is 15,000 feet instead of 6000 feet. Take a ride on the head ends of passenger trains, on passenger lines where there are grade crossings. A passenger train occupies a crossing for maybe 3 seconds (most times less). The "warning" time is set by law to be no less than 20 seconds. Watch the people run around the gates.

8. Not quite that simple. Many longer and heavier trains, like the coal trains you mention or the "super-long" stack container trains, are unit trains with all cars picked up at a single originating point, and all cars going to the same destination. So a train of 200 coal cars from the Powder River Basin headed to Wisconsin Electric Power, gets relayed at crew change with no interim work. A 100 car local train may have to pick up and set off a total of 200 cars at 5 different locations during its assigned work period. Who's working the longer hours? Who experiences the most fatigue.

Simply reducing the length of a train doesn't address fatigue issues. Addressing fatigue issues-- regularizing schedules, reducing "away from home terminal" status, increasing rest periods, allowing fatigue breaks for long haul freight, testing for sleep apnea-- is not really advanced by the argument about train length and weight.

(9) Correct, 5 employee fatalities is 5 too many. Absolutely. That's the catechism we all swear to in this business.

(10). Agree, the demand to eliminate unsafe conditions is to protect employees, passengers, pedestrians, communities. We're not arguing about that H. We're arguing (1)exactly what those unsafe conditions are; how they are defined; and what the appropriate mitigations are. (2) if the proposals, or discussion points, or whatever not only address those conditions, but address the class need to organize itself as a class beyond, above outside craft, trade, restrictions.

And I think the argument started because I inferred from the RWU statements, or the presentation of RWU made by others, that increased profits on railroads over the past X years came at the expense of safety. I think that's a difficult argument to make.

That's quite different from saying that railroads aren't safe enough. That's different from saying railroads don't have a calculus of safety vs. efficiency, of cost vs. benefit. And that's different from saying that without a seizure of power, a revolutionizing of the relations of production, everybody, on and off the railroads, is fucked, and supremely. They are.

S. Artesian
Jun 10 2015 15:19

NTSB report: 188 Locomotive Engineer Not Using Cellphone

Actually, good news.

Jun 10 2015 17:23

The Federal Railroad Administration put out a safety advisory:

USA Today wrote:
Less than a month after a catastrophic Amtrak derailment near Philadelphia, federal regulators called Tuesday for passenger trains to have two qualified crew members in the locomotive or in close communication when operating in areas without automatic braking.

In a 10-page safety advisory, the Federal Railroad Administration also called on passenger railroads to use automatic braking where available to comply with speed limits, identify locations where the speed limit drops at least 20 mph for a curve and install additional speed-limit signs along tracks.


Amtrak has automatic braking on most of the Northeast Corridor, and expects to complete the installation by the end of the year. The northbound curve in Philadelphia didn't have automatic braking in place, but FRA ordered it implemented after the crash.

S. Artesian
Jun 10 2015 20:55

Did you read the Safety Advisory, H? It recommends having a second qualified person in the cab only in areas where a required deceleration of more than 20 mph is required. In lieu of having a second qualified person in the cab, FRA deems an acceptable alternative to be radio or intercom communication between the locomotive engineer in the cab and a second qualified person located in the body of the train

It's really important to read these things in their original release rather than count on USA Today. The FRA advisory is a list of recommendations, is not enforceable, and is shot through with flaws in that there is no mechanism or process for capping the maximum speed of any train approaching a restriction.

So for example, where the maximum authorized speed of the train is 60 mph and the train approaches a curve rated at 50 mph-- railroads are not required to augment their automatic train control systems if they have them, nor are they required to have a second person present; nor are they required to have the locomotive engineer communicate with another qualified person. But nothing prevents a locomotive engineer from exceeding that 60 mph "approach" speed and approaching the curve at 70 or 80 or 90 mph and thus derailing the train.

FRA's logic is exactly the faulty logic that #188 shot holes through in its derailment, because the speed approaching the curve was 80 mph while the speed at the curve was 50 mph, so even if the engineer operated at 80 mph, no derailment was predicted by simulations. But GARBAGE IN is GARBAGE OUT. The simulation, the calculation, and the simulators and the calculators never thought that the human error would occur on the tangent track where the speed would be violated to the tune of 106 mph. They assumed that the locomotive engineer would comply with the 80 mph. They assumed, and assume makes an ass out of u and me. And it kills.

One of my obligations as a prick-boss was to make sure we didn't swallow FRA's bullshit logic and set ourselves up for an "approved disaster," by complying with nonsensical recommendations.

Here's the full advisory

S. Artesian
Jun 11 2015 18:13

NTSB qualifies statement on cellphone use:

According to a friend who was present at the hearing:

yesterday the newest NTSB member, Vice-Chairman Bella Dinh-Zarr, noted on capital Hill that this is only for phone/data records, they have yet to determine if any apps were in use.

Hearing archive here

at about 1:08 into the video.