Workers Vanguard No. 1069
29 May 2015
Amtrak Train Wreck
Capitalist Murder on the Tracks
For Union Control of Safety!
The May 12 Philadelphia Amtrak derailment lays bare how the country’s rulers sacrifice the safety of workers and the public on the altar of capitalist profit. Amtrak Train 188 flew off a notoriously tight curve on the Northeast Corridor at over 100 miles per hour (twice the speed limit), killing eight people and injuring more than 200. As is the norm in industrial accidents, the bourgeoisie’s mouthpieces and government representatives rushed to blame the worker involved, with Philly’s Democratic mayor Michael Nutter deriding the 32-year-old engineer, Brandon Bostian, as “reckless.” In fact, those who know him have described Bostian as very safety-conscious. He also reportedly often posted online messages urging the railroad companies to do more to advance safety.
The immediate cause of the derailment is not known, not least because Bostian has no memory of the crash. But what is clear is that for decades the government and the rail companies have obstructed and undermined safety measures that could have prevented this accident and many others. Following the fatal September 2008 train crash in Chatsworth, California, the federal government mandated that railroads implement a system known as positive train control (PTC) by the end of 2015. This technology relies on either transponders or GPS to prevent trains from exceeding the speed limit on any given section of track and can also prevent train collisions.
The National Transportation Safety Board found that between 2004 and 2014, PTC could have prevented or mitigated 25 train accidents in which a total of 65 people died and over 1,100 were injured. But the rail companies view PTC only as another expense. Thus, they have been making excuses for not implementing it while lining up Congress to extend the deadline.
Amtrak has an older safety system known as automatic train control on the section of track where the Philadelphia derailment occurred, but it was only operational on the southbound track. By the time train service resumed after the wreck, Amtrak had switched on automatic train control in both directions. Of course, that is little comfort to the injured or families of the dead.
Whatever technology is in place (or not), an essential safety precaution would be having two people in the locomotive cab! Since 1983, Amtrak has insisted on operating its passenger trains in the Northeast Corridor with only one engineer. Freight trains of 100 or more cars, at one time worked by a crew of five or six, are today often manned by only an engineer and a conductor. And the freight rail bosses are now pushing to have only a single crew member on their trains, a recipe for disaster that the rail unions have been resisting. The ongoing reduction in train crew size is part of the bosses’ antiunion offensive that kicked into high gear with the deregulation of the industry in the 1970s. Railroad employment has plunged from over 600,000 in 1970 to less than 250,000 today (leaving 20,000 at Amtrak).
The Philadelphia derailment recalls that of a Metro-North commuter train at Spuyten Duyvil in the Bronx in 2013. In that accident, the engineer, suffering from fatigue exacerbated by sleep apnea, nodded off as the train approached a sharp bend. Then, too, positive train control or a second crewmember in the cab (or even an alerter alarm) could have prevented the derailment, in which four were killed. The company not only tried to blame the engineer, William Rockefeller, but also seized on the accident as a pretext for a crackdown on New York City transit workers for trivial infractions.
Just recently, the Bronx district attorney announced that Rockefeller will not face criminal charges, although his job remains in limbo. Criminally disregarding the dangers of fatigue, this year Amtrak has introduced variable start times and shorter breaks, with many workers already made to endure 12-hour shifts. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE), today a part of the Teamsters, has criticized the company’s “turning of long understood standards of fatigue mitigation here on their heads.”
In a New York Times opinion piece (18 May), Richard White, author of Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (2011), debunks the myth that there was ever a time when American “trains ran efficiently, safely and dependably,” concluding “there was no such golden age.” As in other inherently dangerous industries like mining, the only way to establish and enforce safety is through mobilizing labor’s power. Workers must be able to shut down unsafe equipment and operations with the full backing of the unions. A fight for higher manning levels, from the cabs to the maintenance crews, and a shorter workweek with no loss in pay not only would open up more jobs but also is literally a question of life and death.
Any effort by the unions to control safety will invariably come up against the rail corporations and the bosses’ state. The capitalists and their government have long recognized the potential power of the transport unions to interrupt commerce and cut off the broader flow of profits. Thus, they have taken measures to curtail the ability of rail workers to strike. The 1926 Railway Labor Act (RLA) was enacted to buy labor peace after decades of unrest marked by major work stoppages in which soldiers were dispatched against striking workers. Establishing guidelines for official union recognition, the RLA virtually outlawed strikes by locking unions into endless “cooling off” periods and government-imposed mediation. Later extended to cover the airline industry, the RLA served as a model for subsequent labor legislation, all of which has sought to hobble labor’s power by putting the unions under the thumb of the state.
This country’s major unions were built through militant class struggle that often defied such antiunion laws and faced down attacks by strikebreakers, cops and the military. Instead of strike action, though, the trade-union leadership today substitutes begging the bosses for some crumbs and lobbying Congress. This policy of class collaboration has led to one defeat after another for the unions and demoralized their membership.
A stark illustration is given by the union bureaucracy’s support to supposed “friend of labor” Democrats, who in fact, no less than the Republicans, represent the interests of the capitalists. The real role of the Democrats can be seen in President Barack Obama’s use of the RLA last year to force striking workers at Philadelphia’s SEPTA commuter rail system back to work. He also invoked the RLA to prevent a national rail strike in 2011; his Democratic predecessor Bill Clinton wielded the RLA 14 times to squelch airline and rail strikes, including heading off a nationwide Amtrak strike in 1997.
In order for the unions to effectively champion the interests of their members, a new, class-struggle leadership must be forged. Such a leadership, recognizing that the interests of workers are counterposed to those of their capitalist exploiters, would rely on the social power of the workers themselves, not the agencies and representatives of the class enemy. Uniting all rail workers—passenger and freight, skilled and unskilled—in joint action would maximize that power and go a long way toward breaking down craft divisions, paving the way for forming one industrial rail union. The BLE merger with the Teamsters in 2004 was something else entirely: a move by the labor statesmen to further their hobnobbing in the halls of Congress.
The Railroads and Capitalist Decay
The Northeast Corridor, stretching between Boston and Washington, D.C., is Amtrak’s busiest and most profitable line. While ridership has been growing every year, government funding has been strangled. Like the rest of the country’s dilapidated rail system (not to mention crumbling roads, bridges and other infrastructure), the Northeast Corridor has been deprived of billions of dollars needed for essential maintenance, repairs and upgrades, including to its century-old bridges. The day after the Philadelphia disaster, the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee voted to slash a further $250 million from Amtrak’s budget.
Amtrak gets off cheap for the injury and death resulting from its unsafe operations, with a 1997 federal law capping payouts at $200 million per accident. Meanwhile, the lives of train crews as well as passengers are put at risk by deteriorating and antiquated equipment. A retired Amtrak engineer recently told Workers Vanguard: “Mechanical failures of rail systems occur routinely. Speedometers fail to register the correct speed or just stop working all together. Brakes can go ‘soft,’ making it difficult to make proper stops. All-important signals can ‘drop in your face’ from a ‘proceed’ indication to a ‘stop’ indication. Automatic switches can fail.”
Amtrak was established as a public corporation through a 1970 federal law that separated off the highly unprofitable passenger service from the ailing rail companies. As is typical in so-called bailouts, the government nationalized the loss-making portion of industry while allowing the capitalists to reorganize and again make profits hand over fist. Despite the spin-off of Amtrak, freight and passenger trains continue to share the tracks of the Northeast Corridor and across the nation, leading to a number of deadly collisions.
In recent years, the consequences of corner-cutting by the freight lines have been most dramatically shown in oil train disasters like the 2013 Quebec train explosion, which killed 47 people and leveled much of downtown Lac-Mégantic. The Department of Transportation estimates that there will be ten derailments a year of trains hauling crude oil or ethanol. Three such accidents have already occurred so far this year in the U.S. Oil shipments pass through hundreds of counties and dozens of major metropolitan areas on poorly maintained tracks and in the majority of cases in inadequate tank cars. Of course, fossil fuels and other hazardous materials need to be transported but that must be done safely, not by the cheapest means.
Safe, efficient and affordable mass transit should be considered a necessary public service. But capitalism—under which the capitalist class, a tiny handful of people, extracts tremendous wealth by exploiting the working class, centrally in the factories, mines, and transport system—is hardly rational. For the bourgeoisie, maximizing short-term profit matters above all else. Thus, they let infrastructure rot away while gutting public services like health care and education.
Whenever a major disaster strikes, Democratic politicians give lip service to putting more money into the nation’s railroads. But the fact remains that the country invests far less of its gross domestic product in rail than many of the world’s capitalist powers, not to mention the Chinese deformed workers state with its extensive high-speed rail network. The arrogant U.S. imperialists think that they can allow their industrial base to wither and still maintain their military dominance over their imperialist rivals as well as neo-colonial peoples across the globe.
Capitalism makes industrial murder commonplace—from train wrecks to collapsing roads and bridges and exploding chemical plants, pipelines and electrical transformers—with the lives of workers and the public written off as mere collateral damage. Under the leadership of a revolutionary workers party, the social power of the proletariat could be unleashed to overthrow capitalist rule and establish a workers America. When the working class is in power, it will marshal the wealth and productive forces of society to rebuild the bridges, highways and factories, in addition to constructing decent housing and schools, opening the road to an egalitarian socialist society in which the needs of all are fulfilled.