It was the deadliest train crash in nearly 30 years, spewing a poisonous cloud of chlorine gas over the small community of Graniteville, South Carolina. Nine people were killed, hundreds sickened and thousands forced from their homes after the chlorine seeped from the mangled tank car, mixing with oxygen and turning into a toxic green cloud that covered the town in the early morning hours of Jan. 6, 2005.
And it could happen again.
Recently, 85 percent of rail workers we surveyed told us that there has been no increase in the number of rail police or security, even on lines that carry toxic cargo, such as radioactive waste and chlorine gas. Trespassers still have easy access to rail yards, and locomotive engines are unsecured on the miles of track between cities and towns. This is despite the terrifying lessons we should have learned from attacks in London and Madrid, and the FBI's warning that the United States' rail network also is a likely target of al Qaeda.
It's no surprise that rail companies are indifferent to the numerous safety and security gaps threatening our nation's towns and cities, the riding public and rail workers. Their profits keep rolling in. The government, which has been bought by the industry, is equally guilty for failing to force security and safety improvements. Who needs safety when you've got friends who are former railroad execs like Dick Cheney and John Snow?
The recklessness of the rail corporations that continue to stall tangible safety measures is a slap in the face to Steve Seeling, whose son Chris was the locomotive engineer who died after inhaling the toxic gas fumes. Steve Seeling says the inaction of Norfolk Southern and other rail companies shows the lack of respect they have for their employees and the public. I agree.
If the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks weren't a wake-up call, then Graniteville should be. I believe the best way to honor Chris and others who died is to do everything in our power to prevent another tragedy.
Rail security along the nation's 230,000 miles of track is a perilous vulnerability in the security of our homeland. But every day, we ask rail employees to work without the necessary training or the assurance that something is being done. We ask passengers and communities to simply hope for the best. Next time, the catastrophe may involve terrorists or occur in a major metropolitan area. We should not be blind to the possibility.
The deadly gas emitted from the tank car in the Graniteville crash is commonly carried on rails running through numerous communities in the United States. Yet on a very basic level, rail employees are still in the dark about how to evacuate their trains.
After Graniteville, the National Transportation Safety Board urged rail companies to take steps to prevent another catastrophe, such as reducing speeds through populous areas and positioning tank cars carrying toxic chemicals where they are less likely to be impacted.
The NTSB said a misaligned switch was the cause of the crash. The train was in "dark territory," so there were no electronic or lighted signals indicating the position of the switches or the condition of the track. About 40 percent of the nation's rail system is in "dark territory." The agency recommended that rail companies install automatic devices that will display the status of switches, both day and night.
The NTSB can only recommend changes, not force them, and it is clear the railroad corporations will not respond out of concern for public safety.
The Federal Railroad Administration must fast track the NTSB recommendations. They deserve urgent attention now. And if government regulators won't make rail safety and security a priority, then Congress should. In the wake of 9/11, Congress was charged with filling the holes in homeland security. We cannot continue to let corporations and friends in high places stand in the way of keeping that promise to the American people.
The Teamsters urge people to contact their members of Congress to pressure lawmakers to support recent legislation introduced by Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-MA) that would establish a comprehensive emergency training program for rail workers.
Part of the overall solution must be a commitment to include rail workers in any and all emergency plans, a critical piece to more secure and safe rail system. No computer chip can ever replace highly trained railroad employees who know their engine, cab car, track line, switch, bridge and tunnel. The quest for profits should never come at the expense of human lives.