Thursday, November 11, 2004

Blood On (and near) The Tracks

Despite all the talk about the election being won because of "values voters" or maybe "fear (of terrorism)" voters, no one should make the mistake of forgetting what the Republican campaign was was really about: behind the curtain was the same old corporate attacks on workers, consumers and the environment; corporate America's traditional campaign to increase its profit margins and control over American society. Tens of millions of Americans were manipulated by gay marriage, abortion, fear of terrorists taking over every small town in America -- all for the benefit of Bush's Rangers and Pioneers.

Left wing rantings you say? Sour grapes perhaps? Go back to Russia, or France or wherever people like me belong?

I wonder what Roger Bruening thinks. Or thought. He's dead. So are Gene Hale and her daughter, Lois Koerber. What were they? On the surface they were all "innocent bystanders" killed in railway "accidents." The root cause of their demise, however, is the selling of worker and public safety to the highest bidder by the oh-so-moral Bush administration.

Bruening was killed this past Wednesday:

Man Killed in Fifth Train Derailment in San Antonio Since May


SAN ANTONIO, Nov. 10 (AP)-- One man was killed and another injured Wednesday when a train car smashed into a cold-storage warehouse where they were working, city officials said.

The derailment was the fifth in San Antonio since May, all involving Union Pacific Railroad trains. It was the second with fatalities.

Roger Bruening, 39, was killed in an office at Crystal Cold Storage when the train car crashed into the corrugated metal building. Another employee was taken to a hospital with injuries that the authorities said were not life-threatening.

Sgt. Gabe Trevino, a police department spokesman, said, "It appears that the train was backing up to hook onto cars, but it pushed them too far back and they went over the rail stop and into the wall."

Hale and Korber were killed last June after two trains collided, releasing a deadly cloud of chlorine gas which also killed the engineer. Hale and Korber weren't killed by the collision, however. Their bodies were found in their home over a mile away, killed by inhaling chlorine gas.

Hey, accidents happen, what are you going to do? Right? Wrong.

Just three days before Bruening's death, a NY Times investigation revealed that the Federal Railroad Administration has become so intertwined with the railway industry that rail safety is suffering -- and rail workers and bystanders are dying.

Does this sound familiar, OSHA watchers?
Federal inspectors were clearly troubled by what they had been seeing in recent years at Union Pacific. According to their written accounts, track defects repeatedly went uncorrected; passenger trains were sent down defective tracks at speeds more than four times faster than were deemed safe; and engines and rail cars were dispatched in substandard condition.

Soon, the inspectors from the Federal Railroad Administration began talking tough: bigger fines and more of them. But as they began to crack down on the railroad, they found themselves under fire from an unexpected quarter: their boss, the agency's deputy administrator, Betty Monro.

Ms. Monro demanded to know why agency officials had not pursued the less punitive "partnership" approach that she favored, according to a July 2002 memo from her and the agency's chief at the time, Allan Rutter. A year later, in a senior staff meeting, Ms. Monro rebuked her subordinates as being "overly aggressive" toward Union Pacific, according to one person present.

Ms. Monro, who now runs the railroad agency, was in a position to know just how unhappy her inspectors were making officials at Union Pacific. She and the railroad's chief Washington lobbyist, Mary E. McAuliffe, are longtime friends and have vacationed together on Nantucket several times since Ms. Monro joined the agency in 2001.

The railroad industry and its federal overseer have long been closely intertwined. And increasingly, like many other federal regulators, the Federal Railroad Administration has emphasized partnership as the best, quickest way to identify, and fix, safety problems from the roots up. But the story of its recent oversight of Union Pacific - spelled out in a series of internal memorandums from agency officials and inspectors - raises questions about whether this closeness has actually served to dull the agency's enforcement edge.

Critics of the agency say that it has, over the years, bred an attitude of tolerance toward safety problems, and that fines are too rare, too small and too slowly collected. Those concerns have been underscored recently by a number of major Union Pacific derailments in Texas and California, including one in which the release of poisonous chlorine gas killed a woman and her daughter in their home near San Antonio.
Read on, it gets better.
  • CSX, one of the largest railroad company's offered the FRA's chief safety official a job potentially worth $324,000 a year while he was visiting CSX headquarter to discuss safety problems.

  • The industry is a rich source of campaign contributions, mostly to the Republicans, with Union Pacific as the biggest giver. Its corporate political action committee was among the top 10 donors to Republican candidates for this election cycle

  • The FRA's associate administrator for safety resigned recently after complaining that he felt pressured by superiors to go easier on Union Pacific.

  • The FRA acknowledges that it levies fines for only about 2 percent of all violations that it finds. The New York Times recently reported that the F.R.A. last year investigated fully just 4 of about 3,000 grade crossing accidents and that the agency had failed to enforce its own rules requiring that railroads promptly report grade crossing fatalities.

So is all of this smiley-face voluntary alliance stuff working? The FRA says yes:
The Federal Railroad Administration began to emphasize its partnership approach in 1995. "We start with the assumption that railroads and their employees want to promote safety for their own benefit, not just because a law or regulation requires it," the F.R.A. would later explain.

Supporters of this approach, called the Safety Assurance and Compliance Program, say it has sharply reduced accidents by focusing on big-picture problems, rather than minor rule infractions.
Others, presumably including those killed by the railroads, aren't so sure:
Charles Lewis, who runs the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit watchdog group in Washington, said the vacations merely underscored "the level of incestuousness between the railroad industry and the regulator."

And the recent derailments have caused some government officials to question the F.R.A.'s oversight of Union Pacific. After five derailments in five months near San Antonio, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas, asked for a federal investigation into the company's operations in the area. Two of those derailments occurred near a high school; in another case, two engines plunged into a creek, spilling diesel fuel. "People are asking now, 'What's going on?' " said Mayor Edward D. Garza of San Antonio.

In California last month, a Union Pacific train derailed east of Los Angeles, damaging two houses, spilling fuel, cutting off electricity to 100 houses, and forcing the evacuation of 24 homes. A little more than a year earlier, in the same county, a runaway train raced through residential neighborhoods at speeds up to 95 miles per hour before derailing, injuring 13 people and damaging or destroying 8 houses.
Last July, a NY Times investigation revealed that Union Pacific and other railroads repeatedly sidestep their own responsibility in grade-crossing fatalities while they blame motorists for deadly accidents. These would be the railroads that, according to FRA politicals, "want to promote safety for their own benefit."

At least someone's getting pissed off. After Bruening's death,
Judge Nelson Wolff of Bexar County was visibly angry at the crash scene, calling it more evidence that a too-close relationship existed between railroads and their federal regulators that compromised safety.

Judge Wolff said he and others were going to Washington next week to meet with the Federal Railroad Administration, as well as Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Representative Charlie Gonzalez of San Antonio.

Asked the message he would deliver, Judge Wolff replied, "Get more inspectors out here, and stop being so damn cozy" with the railroads.
So America, this is the price you paid for keeping yourselves safe from terrorists under your bed and matrimonial homosexuals. Hope you feel better. Just watch out for runaway trains and wandering clouds of chlorine.