WASHINGTON – The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) on Nov. 29 recommended that rail companies make important operational changes, including reducing speeds in populated areas, to avoid another catastrophic accident like the crash in Graniteville, South Carolina, in January that killed nine people.
The deadly accident occurred when a Norfolk Southern train crashed into a parked freight train that was carrying tank cars of chlorine gas. One of the tank cars exploded, causing a cloud of toxic gas to blanket the area. Eight residents of Graniteville and the locomotive engineer operating the train died after inhaling the gas.
"Rail companies must act now to implement changes recommended by the NTSB to protect the public," said John Murphy, director of the Teamsters Rail Conference. "Our country cannot afford to wait for the Federal Railroad Administration to force these corporations to do what is right."
The report by the NTSB highlights the very real danger of trains moving across tracks that have misaligned switches in "dark territory" or un-signaled territory. The NTSB says that rail companies should be required to install a device to visually or electronically alert workers to the position of the switch, day and night. Rail companies also should be required to position tank cars toward the rear of trains and to reduce speeds through populated areas to reduce the risk of deadly crashes, the NTSB said.
"This accident was devastating to the community and the country," Murphy said. "We owe it to the citizens of Graniteville and the nine people who lost their lives to do everything we can to prevent another tragedy."
The report also said railroads should provide an emergency escape breathing apparatus – and the appropriate training – to all crewmembers on freight trains carrying hazardous materials.
"We said from the beginning that if our son had been given an appropriate escape breathing apparatus, he might have survived this horrible accident," said Rebecca Schmidt, the mother of Chris Seeling, the locomotive engineer who died in the crash. Seeling was a member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), a division of the Teamsters Rail Conference.
Thousands of track switches are left unattended and unmonitored every day on rail tracks across the country. Locomotive engineers overwhelmingly warned that rail yards and equipment are not secure. In a recent Teamsters report, "High Alert: Workers Warn of Security Gaps on Nation’s Railroads," 94 percent of locomotive engineers said rail yard access was not secure and 90 percent reported that rail equipment – including switches – were not secure. Most indicated that hazardous materials were part of the cargo being shipped along their daily routes.
"We will continue to closely monitor the status of changes to the rails in America — the rail corporations have got to make commitments to protect their employees and the public much more seriously than they ever have," Murphy said.