Jul 092013

onaschoutsmall by Bill Onasch

 Hell of a Way to Run a Railroad
The first radio news I heard about the horrific rail accident in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec reported that a “driverless” train had crashed and burned in the center of the small lake side town. Because of resistance such as Railroad Workers United, I knew of the relentless drive of North American carriers for one-person crews but found it difficult to believe they were running cross-country trains with no humans on board.

It turned out, of course, that the train was a runaway. It shouldn’t have been moving without at least an engineer on board. Although crucial details are still being slowly uncovered, it seems fair to say this accident, whose final death toll has not yet been established, can be largely attributed to the operating rules of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, owned by the privately held multinational Rail World Inc.

When the last engineer on the ill-fated train hauling seventy tanker cars of crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken fields reached the end of his service day there was no scheduled relief to take over. Nor was there any secured, supervised rail yard to park the train. Following MMA protocol, he parked the train on a siding, set the brakes, shut off all but one of the five diesel-electric locomotives on the head end–and headed for nearby Lac-Mégantic for rest.

Probably before his head hit the pillow, a fire broke out on the running locomotive. Local firefighters quickly responded and soon extinguished the fire. In the process, to prevent fuel from being sprayed on the fire they shut down the engine. They called the MMA dispatcher, of unidentified location and gender, to report what they had done and the present condition of the train. With their job done, the firefighters left, confident the railroad would act promptly to secure their valuable equipment and cargo.

That proved to be an unwarranted assumption. As this is written it has not yet been established what action, if any, was taken by the dispatcher. Apparently there was no effort to contact the only qualified carrier employee in the area–the engineer who had parked the train.

The current working theory of what happened next centers around the shut down of all power on the parked train. That meant the air compressor maintaining the air brakes was down. Any air leaks could have drained the system. Even though there are supposed to be automatic built-in safety responses to such a drain there’s no denying the train, on a slight incline, began to slip and then roll at high speed until it derailed on a curve in the center of Lac-Mégantic.

The cars began piling on top of each other, some flying out of control far beyond the track area. With sparks everywhere, spilled and spraying oil exploded in to a massive fire. Flaming crude flowed in to the sewer system spreading widely throughout the once picturesque town. When all the missing are finally accounted for the death toll will certainly be in the dozens.

From the Rail World Inc headquarters in Chicago, MMA Chairman Ed Burkhardt quickly faulted the firefighters for not standing guard over his property. He also said the dispatcher’s response would be thoroughly investigated. He made a special point of holding the engineer who had faithfully complied with carrier rules harmless.

There has been a lot of commentary about the risks of transporting big unit trains of oil. This is a new, rapidly growing market for rail carriers as pipelines are at full capacity and resistance to new construction is formidable. Lac-Mégantic shows such fear is justified. An embargo on such cargo–at least until a full investigation is completed and recommendations coming out of the Quebec disaster are presented–is in order.

But we should also expose how the greedy carrier attacks on the historic working and safety conditions of rail labor is an even wider danger that should be the concern of all. Rail is too vital to be left in the hands of private equity plutocrats. Just as the great rail labor pioneer, Eugene V Debs advocated, rail belongs in a public sector. While serving democratically determined public interest its day-to-day management should be elected by those who do the work.

The Specter of Recovery
The June jobs report was the kind of recovery nobody seems to want. When Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke recently expressed some modest optimism about economic growth the stock and other financial markets nose-dived. They were alarmed that the Fed’s “stimulus” program might soon be phased out.

Bernanke, who once wrote a scholarly paper explaining how the New Deal jobs programs had prolonged the Great Depression, has long worked to prime the pump with interest free loans to qualified borrowers–banks and big corporations. This not only subsidized Big Business and Finance; it also depressed the bond market–driving more money in to the stock markets. If Bernanke pulls the plug on this Big Government handout loved by Wall Street those imaginative fellows will have to come up with a new strategy.

So the monthly spin on recovery was that it’s good–but not so good that we can afford to turn off the support for the Job Creators still entitled to help. The New York Times ran a story entitled Jobs Data Is Strong, but Not Too Strong, Easing Fed Fears.

As a matter of fact, they didn’t have to spin so much on the recovery angle. While some new jobs were created they were mainly low pay and/or part-time. The official unemployment rate remained unchanged. Even the union-supported Economic Policy Institute–certainly no enemy of the White House–continued to uphold their deserved reputation for honest, insightful analysis with a good dose of cold water on “recovery.” Heidi Shierholz wrote,

“The average growth rate for the previous 12 months was 169,000, so the current rate is an improvement. However, the current pace of job growth is still slower than what’s needed for the economy to return to full employment any time soon. At this pace, it will be more than five years until we get back to the prerecession unemployment rate.”

Her Special Report, Four Years Into the Recovery and We’re Just a Fifth of the Way Out of the Hole Left by the Great Recession, is well worth a read.

The Affordable Care Act, aka ObamaCare, has on top of its inherent contradictions been subject to painful guerrilla attacks by Republican legislators and governors. But the cruelest sucker punch of all was delivered as the President returned from an extensive global junket. AP reported,

“In a major concession to business groups, the Obama administration Tuesday unexpectedly announced a one-year delay, until after the 2014 elections, in a central requirement of the new health care law that many companies provide coverage for their workers or face fines…But the delay could also undermine the law’s main goal of covering the nearly 50 million Americans without health insurance. Already, Republican resistance in the states will deny access to a planned Medicaid expansion — at least for next year — to millions of low-income people.”

The year delay in assessing employer fines also will make the “reform” much more costly.

There is, however, no reprieve from the individual mandates for those, such as my self-employed spouse, who have no access to an employer plan. Whether Mary can remain as a dependent on my retiree health insurance–for which we pay the full cost–depends on the future of that plan which has not yet been revealed. Otherwise, the uninsured are still expected to buy their own coverage next year or pay a hefty fine.

The party of the cracked tea pots is not the only alternative to increasingly corporate friendly ObamaCare. Labor Campaign for Single-Payer is still plugging away.

In Brief…
* From the New York Times, “Southern Chinese on average have lived at least five years longer than their northern counterparts in recent decades because of the destructive health effects of pollution from the widespread use of coal in the north, according to a study released Monday by a prominent American science journal.”
* Daniel Ellsberg, the whistle-blower who delivered a body blow to the Nixon administration with his leaking of the Pentagon Papers defends Edward Snowden in a Washington Post opinion piece, Snowden made the right call when he fled the U.S.

*An excellent piece in the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel begins, “On April 24, a textile factory collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing over 1,100. A government investigator has presented his results to SPIEGEL. They tell a harrowing story of a disaster caused by greed and the pressures of globalization.”

Many other important news and analytical stories appeared in our Labor Advocate Blog, updated by 9AM Central, Monday-Friday.

That’s all for this week.

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