Six train derailments in 36 hours as conductors and engineers start voting on sellout contract

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Overturned cars from an Amtrak train that derailed near Joplin, Montana, killing three people and injuring others on Sept. 25, 2021. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Six trains derailed over a 36-hour period across the United States on Tuesday and Wednesday this week. The series of derailments came as engineers and drivers began voting on a White House-brokered contract that fell far short of their demands, particularly on quality of life and working conditions.

In Tacoma, Washington, a train derailed after a temporary switch malfunctioned. The passenger train was traveling at just 10mph on a 5am round trip through the station with no passengers when the switch failed causing the train to derail. No one was injured and the switch was fixed later that morning.

Another incident in Eugene, Oregon saw four cars partially derailed, leaning precariously out of the way as crews worked to straighten the cars. The train was clear of on-going traffic, but could have been hit by other vehicles if the derailment had occurred at the nearby intersection.

Other incidents occurred in Bossier, Louisiana; Gibson County, Indiana; and near Houston, Texas. No one was injured and no hazardous materials were spilled in any of the incidents, but a hazmat team was deployed to the Houston six-car derailment as a precaution.

A crash in Orneville, Maine was particularly dangerous, with several cars piling up on the track. A rail pierced the cabin but did no harm. Local reports say the derailment happened due to a track washout around 3:15 a.m. Wednesday and a car carrying asphalt was leaking into a nearby bog. The train, operated by Canadian Pacific, was badly damaged and heavy machinery will have to be brought in to lift the cars and engine.

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These derailments show the dangers railway workers face every day on the job. A derailment in Missouri this summer left four dead and 150 injured after an Amtrak train hit a dump truck.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, there were 8,076 train accidents last year, injuring 4,622 people and killing 753. Of those, railroad workers injured 2,568 and killed 11. That equates to 2% of the 120,000 workers at the seven Class I railroads, a higher injury rate than in mining and oil extraction, construction and manufacturing based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

The number of injuries and accidents has declined over time, especially during the pandemic, but the number of fatalities has increased over the past decade, from 603 in 2010 to 753 last year. The rise in fatalities is the result of pressure on railway workers to work longer hours hauling more goods on longer trains, aging and poorly maintained tracks. Workers are kept on call 24/7 and worked to the bone as carriers continue to erode working conditions and cut jobs.

The United States has significantly higher accident and injury rates than other countries. Data from the European Union shows that there were just over 1,500 rail accidents across the EU in 2019. That year, 687 people were killed and 568 seriously injured. This is all the more striking given the much higher density of rail networks in Europe and the larger share of people who travel by train.

The accident rate in the United States is similar to that of India, which recorded 28,000 rail accidents in 2019. Although much larger in absolute terms, India has a population four times that of the states -United. India has a rail accident rate per capita almost identical to that of the United States.

This dismal safety record for U.S. rail carriers has matched an ever-increasing profit margin for companies. The railroad industry operates with a whopping 50% profit margin, the highest of any industry in the country and 10 times the national average.

Also this week, Union Pacific reported quarterly profits were up 18% to $2 billion, an increase of $300 million from earnings in the third quarter of last year. The earnings report notes that the company spent $2.1 billion to repurchase 9.5 million shares of its own stock in the last quarter. In total, Union Pacific has spent $6.5 billion on stock buybacks so far this year.

Meanwhile, carriers claim they don’t have enough money to adequately pay workers and properly staff their crews. Workers continue to work understaffed, on call and overworked so companies like Union Pacific can spend billions to enrich their investors.

But despite record profits, railway workers are forced to vote on contracts containing wage increases below the rate of inflation. More importantly, critical safety and welfare issues have not been resolved. Engineers and conductors are continuously on call and often required to operate trains with little sleep. They currently have no guaranteed sick leave and the new contract would only give them three unpaid days off a year to schedule doctor’s appointments. Meanwhile, the trains are continually getting longer, with three-mile-long trains no longer rare. This creates a dangerous situation for rail crews and the communities in which the railroads operate.

The union bureaucracy is determined to impose these contracts despite overwhelming opposition, defying votes of 99% or more to authorize the strike. The workers, however, organized independently through the Railway Rank and File Committee to defeat the contract and prepare the ground for a nationwide strike.

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