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Criminal prosecution for unintentional mistakes is blatantly unfair to locomotive engineers and trainmen

By Dennis R. Pierce
BLET National President

INDEPENDENCE, Ohio, February 12 — In the wake of recent dramatic and highly visible railroad accidents in the United States and Canada, there has been a trend to criminalize railroad workers and prosecute them as the sole cause of these tragedies. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen stands opposed to such actions.

It is a travesty that criminal charges were filed against three former employees of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway for the tragedy of July 5, 2013 in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. The trial against them began in September of 2017 and concluded on January 19, 2018. What jurors found out is that railroading is a complex system of operations, and many factors go into a safe operation. Determining the root cause of a particular accident is far more complex than simply blaming the workers, but that all too often is what many rail carriers and government agencies have done.

In 2017, criminal charges were brought against the locomotive engineer of Amtrak train 188, which crashed in Philadelphia on May 12, 2015. Those charges were dismissed in 2017 after a judge ruled that the crash was accidental, not criminal. The engineer’s lawyer argued in part: “The law recognizes there’s a big difference between an accident and a crime.” However, a second judge has ruled that dismissal of those charges was wrong, and has reinstated charges of reckless endangerment, involuntary manslaughter, and one count of causing a catastrophe.

The operating employees who crew trains and locomotives — locomotive engineers, conductors, brakemen and switchmen — have extraordinary safety-critical tasks and responsibilities not found in other industries. An operating employee’s readiness for safety-critical constant vigilance is a personal obligation. But this personal duty must be effectively supported — not thwarted — by a management devoted fully to the fundamentals of safety.

Railroad crew members sometimes go on duty without being allowed sufficient rest, and with accumulated sleep deficits, consequently constituting a profound safety problem on and along the tracks. Laws are such that crew members are not given enough time to simply rest and have a normal life. On the Amtrak property, many of our locomotive engineers work six-day assignments resulting in operations in excess of 2,500-3,000 miles per week. At times, the crew members are harassed and intimidated if they repeatedly request to lay off for needed rest. Moreover, they have to contend with abiding by unrealistic attendance policy standards imposed by the carrier that often result in disciplinary action despite the fact that additional time off is both necessary and fully warranted. Crew members who are harassed and intimidated by railroad managers are less likely to provide feedback regarding unsafe operations. Such feedback is crucial to safe train operations.

To please Wall Street investors, railroads have furloughed so many workers that the few who remain are often overworked and stretched too thin. Railroads are increasing the length of freight trains to dangerous levels, trying to do more with fewer workers. Well-rested crew members are essential to safe train operations.

Railroad crew members sometimes complain that they are not given sufficient familiarization trips to become acquainted with the lines over which they operate. Proper training is essential to safe train operations.

At times, crew members protest to railroad managers about hazardous operations, but their protests simply go unheeded. Properly maintained equipment and tracks are essential to safe train operations.

This is not to make excuses, but an effort to explain that it takes more than just blaming the worker to determine the root cause of railroad accidents. Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the victims, families and workers touched by the accidents mentioned above. But criminalizing the worker is not part of the solution to eradicate similar tragic accidents from happening again.

Monday, February 12, 2018
bentley@ble-t.org

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