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January 20, 2014 - No. 1

Crimes Continue on Railroads Despite Lac-Mégantic Tragedy

Derailment and Explosion near
Casselton, North Dakota

Massive explosion of derailed train cars carrying crude oil, near Casselton, North Dakota, December 30, 2013. (Xinhua)

Crimes Continue on Railroads Despite Lac-Mégantic Tragedy
Derailment and Explosion near Casselton, North Dakota
Transport Canada Quietly Lifts Safety Measure at Behest of Monopolies
"Transport Canada Has a Public Interest to Ensure that the Railways Are Safe" - Interview, Brian Stevens, Unifor National Rail Director
ArcelorMittal Railway Workers Say No! to Unsafe Conditions - Interview, Philippe Bélanger, President, Local 6869 USW, Quebec North Shore

Crimes Continue on Railroads Despite Lac-Mégantic Tragedy

Derailment and Explosion near
Casselton, North Dakota

Casselton, North Dakota, December 30, 2013 (Cass County; NTSB)

A very important question that demands an immediate answer is why railway disasters continue to happen despite last July's disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec? On December 30, about two kilometres from the small municipality of Casselton, North Dakota, a train carrying crude oil derailed after it was struck by another train transporting grain. The collision and derailment caused a fire in approximately 26 of the 106 cars and explosions were heard for miles around. The fire created huge clouds of black smoke and authorities issued a voluntary evacuation notice as a precautionary measure. Had the winds turned, the cloud of toxic smoke would have covered the town.

The Casselton derailment is one of five North American derailments of trains transporting crude oil in the last six months. Besides the disaster in Lac-Mégantic, there was the derailment of a CN train in Edmonton in October that forced 100 residents to evacuate, the derailment of 26 cars in Alabama in November, and on January 7 there was a derailment near Plaster Rock, New-Brunswick. As well, on January 11, three CP Rail cars carrying coal tipped over and went off the CN railway tracks near Burnaby Lake in BC's Lower Mainland, spilling their contents into a nearby stream.

The Casselton derailment involved the same crude oil produced by fracking and unsafe transportation as the derailment in Lac-Mégantic. The municipality of Casselton has a population of 2,329. The derailment did not kill or injure anyone but it happened just minutes after passing through the town's downtown. One can only imagine the devastation of human life had the derailment occurred in the heart of Casselton. Nevertheless, a huge amount of pollution has been caused by the explosion.

The two trains are the property of Burlington Northern Sante Fe (BNSF), which is owned by the Berkshire Hathaway investment firm and in turn belongs to the American plutocrat Warren Buffet (the culprits in the closing of the Heinz plant in Leamington, Ontario, putting 740 workers out on the street). In a statement following the derailment, a spokesperson for BNSF said the company was "terribly sorry for the inconveniences the derailment has caused the people of the town."

Recent derailments: left -- Pickens County, Alabama, November 8, 2013; right -- Plaster Rock, New Brunswick,
January 7, 2014 (Alabama EMA; TSB Canada)

Following the Casselton derailment, authorities and various experts told of how the oil extracted by fracking is extremely volatile and flammable and much more dangerous to transport than conventional crude oil. The discussion continues on how the DOT-111/CTC-111A tanker cars are outdated and completely unsuitable to transport this oil. Yet despite the Lac-Mégantic and other tragedies, nothing has been done to concretely change the situation to ensure the safety of the people and the environment.

Furthermore, it is coming to light that the tracks near Casselton are outdated and largely unmaintained. The authorities had even considered destroying a large part of these poorly kept tracks.

North Dakota's economy has been in shambles since at least 2000, with a declining population, decreased farming and a high level of unemployment. Then came the oil boom with its promise of economic salvation and the people were blackmailed into becoming collateral damage for the railroad and oil monopolies' great adventure or be left with no livelihood or hope of prosperity.

The derailment near Casselton is not another "accident" but the scene of another crime. As far as workers are concerned, the situation is very serious, where governments have openly abdicated any responsibility to restrict monopoly right. Working people should denounce these monopolies for their reckless endangerment of human life and the environment and demand that governments hold the monopolies to account. Workers must fight for a new direction for the economy with the well-being of human beings at its centre, not the profits of the monopolies and their owners. How to advance this struggle is a matter of utmost importance which must be taken up by everyone in 2014.

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Transport Canada Quietly Lifts Safety Measure at Behest of Monopolies

The Canadian Press reported January 10 that on Boxing Day Transport Canada quietly approved new safety rules drafted by the railway industry, just as an emergency directive issued July 23 -- two weeks after the Lac-Mégantic tragedy -- was set to expire. The new rules, which were adopted without public notification, include lifting one of the safety measures adopted on July 23. Although Transport Canada did not publish the new rules on its website, it did not deny that the measure had been lifted and the Railway Association made public that Transport Canada had done this on the advice of the railways.

The measure dropped is precisely one that could have prevented the Lac-Mégantic disaster: "Ensure that no locomotive attached to one or more loaded tank cars transporting dangerous goods is left unattended on a main track."

Instead, the new rules replace the requirement that a train with hazardous cargo be continuously attended with instructions that if such a train is left unattended, safely brakes are to be applied and the cab secured to prevent unauthorized entry.

The Canadian Press article quotes railway spokespersons who argue that ensuring a train transporting hazardous cargo is never left unattended on a main track is unrealistic and a staffing nightmare. Rob Smith, the national legislative director of the Teamsters union, which represents railway workers from both CN and CP, responded that staffing could be done "very easily." He said, "It's a matter of dollars and cents, really."

In the wake of the Lac-Mégantic tragedy, workers and safety experts exposed the same measures that have just been adopted as inadequate to protect the safety of the workers and the people. The constant downsizing of the work force, reducing the number and the role of human beings who are actively involved in organizing to ensure that the operation of the railways is safe, is at the centre of the wrecking of the railways and the disasters that happen with increasing frequency. It is human beings organizing to provide the problems of life with solutions that is key, not brakes and other things of that kind.

The secrecy of this move by Transport Canada, the fanatical refusal to listen to the people who demand a decisive say in the way the railways are operated and permitting the very monopolies that maim and kill people to usurp all decision-making power are unacceptable. These actions underscore the need for working people to get rid of the Harper government as soon as possible.

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"Transport Canada Has a Public Interest to Ensure that the Railways Are Safe"

TML: 2013 saw a high number of derailments: the Lac-Mégantic tragedy that took 47 lives, several derailments in Alberta and many others. Their number seems to be on the increase and their impact on human life, the environment and the economy is also more devastating with the drive to move more hazardous materials by rail. What do you attribute this state of affairs to?

Brian Stevens: There are two main issues in my opinion. This situation really dates back to 1985 with the deregulation of the rail industry, allowing the railways to regulate themselves and minimizing the role of Transport Canada in ensuring that there is a safe railway transportation system and that the public interest is taken care of. In the last decade, since 2003-2004, there has been significant pressure from the railways to eliminate regulation that gets in the way of them stuffing money in the pockets of their shareholders. It is a regulatory system that, on paper, is strong in terms of maintenance and safety aspects, but in terms of enforcement, the oversight is left to the industry itself. The public would not have any confidence in an airline industry that was run the same way as the rail industry.

Plaster Rock, New Brunswick, January 7, 2014
(TSB Canada)

There have been quite a few derailments of late. Each of them can happen for its own reasons, independent of the others. But the system itself is run pretty hard. One CEO says he likes to "sweat the assets," like a jockey running a horse right to the finish line. The downfall of that is that the assets get tired - whether it is people, rails, cars or maintenance. There is a movement now, an effort by the industry to keep everything moving, to not bring the cars into the rail yards for safety and maintenance inspections, but keep them running from one coast to the other. That is their objective. You hear the executives talk about that, that their operating ratio would deal with velocity and dwell time. When dwell time is low that means velocity is up. If a train is sitting somewhere it means it is not making money. They want to keep that train moving and they want to keep shoving money into the shareholders' pockets. This is a deliberate, conscious move; the operating ratio is a target. You will hear CPR's CEO Hunter Harrison talk to the shareholders and to the news reporters about driving down the operating ratio. That is his focus: improve velocity, sweat the assets and reduce dwell time.

TML: This means that the need to have governments that stand up and defend the public interest is greater than ever.

BS: Absolutely. It does not mean that government and industry can't coexist. They very much can, but you need a regulatory framework where Transport Canada is part of the process, not an observer; and right now they are simply an observer of the process.

TML: When they refer to railways, both Stephen Harper and Minister of Transport Lisa Raitt keep saying that the number of railway accidents is going down. What is your take on that?

BS: I don't know what the truth is any more, that is the problem. I don't think anybody knows what the truth is. As we recently found out at CN Rail between 2003 and 2007 there were 400 unreported runaways. We saw in 2013 where both CN and CP were not reporting derailments and the incidents that were occurring. I can't say for certain, and I am surprised that the industry or even the government would say that the number of incidents is down, because there is no sense at all that there is any confidence in those numbers. So much has gone unreported, there is a lack of confidence for sure. I really don't know how either CN or CP can say that the number of incidents is going down because when we start to look a little deeper we find that most of the incidents are unreported.

The railways are introducing a tricky nuance. They say that main line derailments are down. But they are not talking about sidings and non-main lines. There are still a number of incidents, but they will say that such and such track is not a main line, it is not part of the main line. They consider it a different reporting structure. The numbers that they use are main line incidents. So Lac-Mégantic would not be classified by CP Rail as a main line. That to them would be a non-main line incident.

Residents of Inglewood, a Calgary neighbourhood, protest CP Rail's transport of dangerous materials through the city, September 13, 2013, two days after the derailment of a CP train carrying nearly one million litres of highly
flammable material (G.C. Carra)

TML: Transport Canada has issued many statements about measures it is taking to improve rail safety in light of the Lac-Mégantic tragedy. Have you studied those? Do they mean anything in terms of improving rail safety?

BS: I had a look at them. For example, from now on there is going to be notification to the cities about the materials that the railcars are transporting when they go through the communities. It is a good step, I think, but it is not really what the cities are asking for. The cities are going to get a kind of year in review that this is what went through their community this year - whether on a quarterly basis or on a semi-annual basis - so many cars of chlorine, so many cars of bitumen oil, so many of aviation fuel, etc. So when the cities are doing a budget for their fire departments or for their emergency response planning, maybe they will say that they need to buy more self-contained breathing apparatuses, etc. I am not going to speak on behalf of the cities, but I think that they wanted something a lot more responsive than that. For example, when a train is going through their community, they would like to get an e-mail or a phone call or something automated, just to say that a train with this type of fuel is going through your community at such and such time so that by the time the fire department or the first responders are making their way to that derailment site, they have a complete comprehensive list of everything that is on that train. The railways are somewhat guarded on that because they don't want their competitors to know, from a commercial perspective, what they are hauling.

WF: We saw in 2013 a growing awareness amongst the workers and the public that when workers defend their working conditions they are actually defending the safety of the people and the communities at large. Do you see it that way?

BS: Absolutely. Our members go to work, we do all the maintenance and safety inspections and we want to make sure that when a train leaves the yard that it is doing so in a manner that is absolutely safe. Part of the problem is that the railway itself can override the mechanic. If a mechanic says that this locomotive or that railcar should not be in service, a supervisor has the right to say that for certain reasons he is going to let the locomotive make its way to Winnipeg or let these railcars make their way to Prince George - and this is part of the regulatory framework of Transport Canada. They can say that this is a maintenance issue, not a safety issue. I said to the industry and to the Minister that if a mechanic says that the bearing on the nosewheel of a plane is worn out and that the plane should not fly because of the potential that the bearing may fail when the plane goes to land, guess what, that plane does not leave until the bearing is changed. That does not happen on the railway.

The other issue with rail safety is that less and less the railcars are coming to our rail yards for maintenance and safety inspections. Trains are getting longer, they are moving a lot of products across the country. They will change the crew on the main line somewhere, bypassing maintenance and safety inspections at locations along the way. When trains run 3,000 km without inspection, the railways say this proves that the trains can run 3,000 km without inspection and that inspections are not needed before that distance. And if they can run 3,000 km without maintenance and safety inspections, then why could they not run 6,000 km without them? The railways go by performance, but going by performance is very deceptive. The logic they use is the same as they use with human beings. Even though a man has some aches and pains, he is still moving, and the same applies to the railcar. Our workers are the last people that take a look at stuff to make sure it is safe before it heads out and there are fewer and fewer of us across the country who do that work.

And then there is the unstated pressure that we all know exists in the workplace and that is to "hurry up and get your job done." Where we used to have six people doing it, now we have only three. People have to do more with less. There have been huge innovations with technology in the industry but you still need two pairs of eyes to look at both sides of a train, that is the minimum. And you need boots on the ground to make sure that the maintenance and safety inspection is done.

WF: What do you want to see happen in the New Year?

BS: I would like to see a change in the way the industry is handling this bitumen fuel. We need the right cars to carry that fuel so that it is safe. The government should call a moratorium on using Department of Transport-111 cars for bitumen.

In the public interest, there should be a moratorium on exemptions or there should be a complete stop to granting exemptions to the railways on safety and maintenance inspections and rules. Right now the railways can apply for exemptions to rules of the regulatory framework and that has to be stopped. The railways are still being granted exemptions.

There should be more inspections by Transport Canada. The Safety Management System has to move away from a self-regulatory auditing kind of thing. It is in the public interest for Transport Canada to ensure that the railways are safe. And that is not done just by checking papers. We need to make sure that the people who are doing the maintenance and safety work are given the possibility of doing it right and the inspectors should have the right to pull trains over and make sure that these trains are being maintained as they should be. The inspectors currently have the right to do it, but there are simply not enough officers in the field to do it.

The public has the right to ensure that the transportation system is safe. They have every right to do that. The industry has every obligation to make sure that it is safe.

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ArcelorMittal Railway Workers Say No! to
Unsafe Conditions

TML: What workers does Local 6869 of the United Steelworkers of Quebec's North Shore represent?

Philippe Bélanger: Our local represents about 600 ArcelorMittal railway workers. ArcelorMittal owns 460 km of track between the mine in Mont-Wright and Port-Cartier. We move the ore that is extracted from the mine. Our workers do the maintenance work on the tracks, transport the iron ore and do the mechanical maintenance in Port-Cartier. We maintain the tracks, run the trains, maintain the fibre optics being used in communications and all the equipment, receive the ore when it arrives in Port-Cartier, stock it in the yard and move it into the ships.

TML: What is the situation in terms of rail safety, which has become one of workers' main concerns in recent years?

PB: Historically the company had regulations that were tougher in terms of safety than those of the federal regulatory framework. Today, the company is ArcelorMittal but before 2007, it was Quebec Cartier Mining. The company had its own rules, approved by the Quebec Ministry of Transport since we work under Quebec's jurisdiction.

However, in recent years a lot of new managers have come from CN Rail and CP Rail. They came with a different vision and started to challenge our safety regulations. These are new players, hired by the company in the wake of the restructuring at CN and CP in which they lost their jobs. They looked at our regulations and decided that in some cases they were hindering productivity. They began to remove some of the measures that we had provided for ourselves based on our experience.

One must understand that behind each rule in our safety book is someone who has died. That does not mean that they all died at our workplace but there is an injury or a fatality behind each rule in the book. We work under Quebec's jurisdiction, but we always refer to the Canadian Rail Operating Rules (CROR) because in essence the Quebec Ministry of Transport implements the federal rules. The new managers began to challenge and remove the rules arguing that they are not part of the CROR. According to them, this meant that they did not apply.

TML: Did anything change after the Lac-Mégantic disaster?

PB: What happened in Lac-Mégantic was a cold shower for some who wanted to get rid of our safety measures. At the moment, the company is watching very keenly what will happen at the federal level in the federal regulatory framework for the railways before it decides how to proceed with respect to safety measures. We would be dreaming if we thought that a company is able to regulate itself when we know that the ultimate goal of a business is profitability. A company really does not have moral values. That makes it all the more important for a government to play its role in rail safety. The government must intervene but unfortunately, with the federal government that we have at the moment, it is very unlikely that we are going to see any change. But as a union it is our duty to put pressure and to speak out.

Many strange things are happening, where people are at risk because of a lack of regulation. There are not many people at the Quebec ministry full time. We talk with them. We can see that there is a malaise. We can see that these are competent people who would be able to sit down and identify which things are not right in terms of safety. It is the same thing at the federal level. They have a good knowledge of the hazards and of the accidents that have happened. Many times they know what caused them. But the inspectors have to abide by what is written, they can't do as they feel, and today there is very little written in terms of rules that are straightforward and have to be implemented. What we face today is profitability at the expense of health and safety.

There comes a time when a government has no choice but to stand up and protect the people and not just businesses and their profits. A government is duty-bound to protect the people.

(Translated from original French.)

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