‘America First’: Washington train disaster shows grim reality of Trump’s concept of ‘security’

The abnegation of social responsibility by the US government and media | TONY SEED

This morning a train went off the tracks while crossing a highway bridge in Washington State. Train cars can be seen teetering off of the tracks and curling onto the highway on one side and a forested area on the other. Washington Gov Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency, noting in his proclamation “significant structural damage to the overpass, railway and highway infrastructure” and saying the combined effects of the derailment and road closures amounted to a “public disaster”. In a separate statement he called the derailment a “serious and ongoing emergency,” saying his office was still gathering information from Amtrak. Seventy-seven people have reportedly been hospitalized while the number of fatalities is being described as “multiple.” 

CNN, CBC and other specialists in disaster journalism are all scrambling to get the most spectacular images and eye-witness reports all the while decontextualizing the disaster as an “accident,” focusing on a track-related cause and/or “human error” without any reference to government deregulation. The story is already being framed and blame insinuated. Every industrial accident is different in its details, but similar in the cover-up. “Human error” on the railroads means the engineer, the worker at the bottom. The media and US government are positioning to drown all the warnings and demands raised by the people about the large railway monopolies in a swamp of policy objectives, statements of good intentions, and inspections in order to actually maintain the status quo.

Cascades train was a P3

The Amtrak Cascades train was travelling to Portland, Oregon along a newly-opened bypass route that had cost some $180 million to construct. It represents what is called a P3 – the so-called “public-private partnership” celebrated by neo-liberalism The train tracks themselves are not owned by Amtrak, and the dispatch services are contracted to a huge private US freight railroad monopoly. “The tracks, known as the Point Defiance Bypass, are owned by Sound Transit (the Seattle transit agency – TS),” the Washington State Department of Transportation wrote in a statement Monday. “The tracks were previously owned by BNSF and were used for occasional freight and military transport.” BNSF (meaning Burlington Northern Sante Fe, reflecting the merger of several railroad companies), is owned by the US oligarch Warren Buffet (see “Who owns Amtrak”). The Amtrak Cascades rail service is jointly owned by the states of Washington and Oregon. It is not known what caused the train to go off the tracks, but this is the second time this year a train has derailed in Pierce County.

The New York Times informs, “Backed by the state of Washington, Sound Transit, the regional transit agency, used $180 million from the 2009 federal stimulus package to buy an old 14.5-mile stretch of track and upgrade it for faster passenger service. The project, known as the Point Defiance Bypass, was devised to allow Cascades trains to stop using a more roundabout route that they shared with freight trains, making for faster, more reliable travel.

“The state also spent $58 million from the stimulus bill on eight new locomotives, specifically for that service. The Cascades service embodies the complex, overlapping responsibilities on many of the nation’s rail lines. Officials said the service is owned by the states of Washington and Oregon, and operated by Amtrak, whereas the Point Defiance Bypass track is owned by Sound Transit, a regional transit agency, and dispatched by BNSF, the freight company that used to own the line.”

The editorial board of The News Tribune in Tacoma questioned in 2013 whether the new line, which shaved about 10 minutes off the Seattle-to-Portland route, was worth the threat to public safety.

“A train accident on tracks near I-5 (an interstate highway – TS) easily could create backups stretching miles in both directions,” the editorial board wrote. “Is making the train ride to Portland 10 minutes quicker worth the threat to public safety and all the disruption it will create for thousands of drivers? Is the state really that desperate for federal rail funds?”

The new high-speed route takes trains inland and runs parallel to Interstate 5 through Tacoma, Lakewood, Joint Base Lewis-McChord and Dupont, separating passenger trains from freight trains that continue to use a waterfront route. It’s the same route that Sound Transit uses for its Sounder commuter train, but that is not a high-speed train.

The News Tribune was not alone. The city of Lakewood sued Amtrak to stop the rerouting, and Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson and some residents in the area have long voiced their concerns about the danger. Mr Anderson told MSNBC that the planned change had spurred worries before the derailment. “Our community has been very concerned about the safety of this modification of the rail route for several years and were unsuccessful in either stopping it or having some modifications,” Mr Anderson said.

At a city meeting on December 5, Mr Anderson said he believed the trains were too close to traffic and pedestrians. “Come back when there is that accident, and try to justify not putting in those safety enhancements, or you can go back now and advocate for the money to do it, because this project was never needed and endangers our citizens,” Anderson said at the city meeting.

Mr Anderson also told local media that it would be only a matter of time before the high-speed trains kill someone.

Trump’s self-serving and callous statement

Throughout the day the monopoly media has been running two news narratives exclusively as if they have nothing to do with one another; US president Donald Trump’s bellicose speech on so-called “US national security” – and the Washington train disaster involving the security of people. The juxtaposition is mind-boggling.

Finally, four hours after the derailment occurred, Trump cited the disaster as to why “our soon to be submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly.”

Before the dead were counted and the facts known, without even so much as by-your-leave to the victims and their families, Trump declared on Twitter, “The train accident that just occurred in DuPont, WA shows more than ever why our soon to be submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly. Seven trillion dollars spent in the Middle East while our roads, bridges, tunnels, railways (and more) crumble! Not for long!” Speaking like a Hitlerite, Trump denounced in his speech past US presidents for betraying the “forgotten” American citizens and vowed to restore the economy by building up the military and the American arms industry. He vowed that pending tax cuts for the corporations and the rich combined with the slashing of regulations would continue this trend. Ten minutes later, the White House had an epiphany about the “forgotten” Americans. Trump tweeted: “Thoughts and prayers are with everyone involved.”

So while an additional $80 billion is being provided to the Pentagon for empire-building, making a yearly budget of about $700 billion, Trump had everything to say about preparing for war and paying the rich and nothing to say about people’s safety. This is the regime that refused infrastructure assistance this fall to the people of Puerto Rico, Houston and south Florida in the wake of hurricanes. His self-serving statement, which was issued on such a solemn occasion promoting pay-the-rich schemes, war and empire building, must be firmly condemned and rejected.

In fact, the Amtrak train was travelling along brand new infrastructure – and the result of a recent infrastructure investment program of the US federal and state governments.

“Infrastructure” is a politically-loaded word; for the very rich, it means that decision-making power in the name of “security” is being submitted to global monopolies, supranational trade and U.S.-led military alliances and accords. To give but one example, the plan of the Trudeau Liberal government for a $40 billion National Infrastructure Bank was drafted in 2016 by McKinsey & Co., a U.S. global consulting monopoly whose CEO, Dominic Barton, is embedded in the Canadian government as chair of Finance Minister’s Morneau’s Economic Advisory Council. McKinsey designed the “reform” plan of the Saudi feudal dictatorship and has a $10 million contract to restructure the CIA.

Neo-liberal train wreck

While he has touted a $1 trillion investment plan for America’s infrastructure – which so far shows few signs of materialising – Trumps’s proposed budget includes $630m in cuts for Amtrak that would devastate long-distance passenger services.

In July, the London Guardian reported that an advocacy group, the National Association of Railroad Passengers (Narp), warned the budget “wipes out funding for long-distance train service in over 220 cities and towns and in 23 states that will lose train service completely”. Almost all those states are in the middle of the country won by Trump. Most of the stations said to be at risk are in rural areas.

Furthermore, Trump’s ballyhooed infrastructure plan only commits $200bn of federal dollars over ten years; it is combined with about $800bn of tax breaks to get developers to build infrastructure instead of the federal government doing it – a giant public subsidy to developers and investors, who would receive generous tax credits, and retain ownership; private bridges, private highways, private railroads, ports and airports. The public will then be charged another time – tolls and fees to use them. Think of the 407 toll highway in the Greater Toronto Area and the Cobequid Bypass in Nova Scotia, a toll highway owned by a US financial conglomerate based in New Jersey and part of the country’s Trans Canada Highway. Trump’s plan means that, in place of public roads and bridges, Americans will have private roads and bridges.

Infrastructure investments and the privatization of rail, ports and airports is the latest panacea of governments that are waging the anti-social, neo-liberal offensive. They refuse to address the real problems that the people are facing — both the cause and the solution – and instead take refuge in mantras, phrases and billion dollar promises. They avoid taking responsibility for their own actions and the impact they have in the creation of these problems. Trump’s security agenda means disaster for the American people in the same breath as it means disaster for the world’s people.

It does not need a government inspection to know that this latest rail disaster is not an isolated “accident”.

It could surely have been prevented and is thus a government-made disaster. Connect the dots.

Bitter Canadian experience

Lac-Mégantic disaster

Canadian experience merits attention as to the consequences of poor or absentee regulation.

In the late evening on July 5, 2013 a freight train comprised of five locomotives and 72 tanker cars that were unsuited for the type of Bakken Formation crude oil they were carrying for the Irving Oil monopoly was left unattended for the night in Nantes, in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. At around 1:00 am on July 6, as the brakes failed, the train started to roll down the slope towards the town of Lac-Mégantic. Shortly after, 63 of the tanker cars derailed in downtown Lac-Mégantic, spilling their contents and causing a series of fires and explosions of catastrophic proportion. Fifty nine of the 63 cars ruptured and released their contents – 6 million out of 6.9 million litres. Forty-seven people were killed, many others were injured and twenty seven children were left orphaned. Downtown Lac-Mégantic was destroyed. The Chaudière River and the lake itself were heavily contaminated by the crude oil spill. To this day, many Lac-Mégantic residents suffer from post-traumatic stress related to the tragedy. They have launched a serious protest movement against government deregulation and the abnegation of its social responsibility.

Casselton, North Dakota

A large number of trains carrying crude oil have derailed since the Lac-Mégantic tragedy, including in Casselton, North Dakota in December 2013; near Plaster Rock, New Brunswick in January 2014; and in Gogama, Northern Ontario in March 2015.

They were all potential Lac-Mégantic tragedies, with loss of life avoided only because the derailments happened a few kilometres away from a densely populated area.

For all intents and purposes, trains like these are rolling bombs, yet they routinely pass through the heart of major cities. The Lac-Mégantic disaster was not track-related in that case, but the derailment of CN oil tankers near Gogama turned out to be track-related. It does not always have to be an explosion – just a spill into a river or into a community is very significant.

Just in the past nine days, there have been three derailments:

  • On December 9, 2017 – a massive CSX freight train derailed in New Jersey, toppling tankers and train cars. The damage left behind stretched for more than a mile.
  • On December 10, a train derailment in Vancover, BC early Sunday morning knocked out power near Deltaport just short of the entrance to the congested port area. The train which was carrying closed shipping containers hit a power pole, disrupting power for about a dozen B.C. Hydro customers in the area.
  • On December 13, a train derailment in Taunton, Massachusetts caused about 1,800 gallons of fuel to leak into the ground that morning. CBS reported “Officials said the derailment happened in the woods so there is no threat to the public at this time.”

Several Amtrak trains have also derailed, with dozens of passengers and workers losing their lives (see below for timeline of incidents since 2011).

Now we have the deadly Washington state derailment.

Rail workers under framework where railways create and enforce their own rules

These disasters and near-disasters were all preventable.

In a 2013 report, Canada’s auditor general found that “despite the fact that federal railways were required 12 years ago to implement safety management systems for managing safety risks and complying with safety requirements, Transport Canada has yet to establish an audit approach that provides a minimum level of assurance that federal railways have done so.” Transport Canada is not able to provide the kind of oversight and enforcement to ensure that existing regulations are adhered to.

A recent analysis by the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration estimated that a failure to upgrade existing regulations would lead to the equivalent of 10 major accidents, costing more than US$18 billion ($24 billion) in damages and including fatalities, over the next 20 years. Proper enforcement means having public service workers on the ground examining what is really happening and ensuring that companies do not cut corners.

In a 2016 interview, Robert Bellefleur, Spokesperson, Coalition of Citizens and Groups for Rail Safety, pointed out that “Nothing has changed on the ground since 2013 as far as rail safety is concerned, in Lac-Mégantic and in Canada. The new Liberal government is still pursuing deregulation and the principle of the self-management of rail safety by the companies themselves. We had another example a couple of weeks ago with the decision of CP Rail to lay off 500 workers doing track inspection and maintenance, and yet the Minister of Transport Marc Garneau says that everything is fine.” (“New Rail Line Bypassing Town Centre Needed Soon”, Interview, TML Weekly, July 9, 2016 – No. 28)

The Lac-Mégantic tragedy is one of the clearest examples of what happens when the public authority turns away from doing the right thing, Blair Stevens, Unifor National Rail Director, warned. “The government, the Transportation Safety Board (TSB), Transport Canada (TC) and the industry themselves are not taking any valid steps, notwithstanding all the rhetoric that we hear out there. We continue to have runaway trains, we continue to have the DOT 111 in service and bursting and causing chaos. . . . We are still not dealing with the real issues that are required to ensure that the public has confidence that the regulator and the industry are operating railways in a safe manner.

“We do not have a regulatory framework that can be enforced by a regulator. We have a framework of rules that are created by the railways and that are enforced by the railways and Transport Canada, with significant lobbying from the railways, are only observers and auditors. They do not play the same role that inspectors do in the aviation industry or the road transport industry. We would not allow the aviation industry to deal with their own planes but we allow the railways to deal with their own trains. The railways continue to operate like they are larger than government themselves.” (“Workers Still Under Framework Where Railways Create and Enforce Their Own Rules,” Interview, TML Weekly, July 9, 2016 – No. 28)

The fact is that four years after the Mégantic tragedy, the dangers to human life, property and the environment are even more acute due to the criminal negligence of the railway monopolies and the collusion of the government. They claim their overriding responsibility and most urgent task is to be competitive with other carriers nationally and internationally at any cost, and the government irresponsibly refuses to hold them to account. Together, they are pushing the criminal line of “industry self-regulation.” Industrial accidents, even calamitous ones like the one in Quebec, are seen by the five or six railway monopolies in North America as part of the cost of doing business. It’s easier and cheaper to pay claims than to implement necessary safety measures.

On the third anniversary of the Lac Mégantic disaster, TML Weekly pointed out:

“The Lac-Mégantic and other train crashes are a tragic and profound eye-opener as to how the neo-liberal outlook and practice of putting all of society’s assets at the disposal of the global monopolies that directly led to the self-regulation of the railways and to criminal negligence causing death and chaos. A radical break with the neo-liberal anti-social agenda is required to favour the people along with immediate measures to enforce safety according to highest standards in terms of working conditions, required personnel, maintenance and all other relevant aspects. The demand is for a public authority over which people exercise control that protects the safety of the rail communities and the public at large by upholding the public interest and not private monopoly interest.”

Deepest condolences to all who lost loved ones in this latest tragedy in Washington. Collective security lies not with Trump nor Trudeau and the state but the workers and people who must step up their fight for the building of a public authority that protects the safety of communities and of the public.


Some other recent Amtrak derailments

• April 3, 2016: Two maintenance workers were struck and killed by an Amtrak train going more than 100 mph in Chester, Pennsylvania. The lead engine of the train derailed.

• March 14, 2016: An Amtrak train traveling from Los Angeles to Chicago derailed in southwest Kansas, sending five cars off the tracks and injuring at least 32 people. Investigators concluded that a cattle feed delivery truck hit the track and shifted it at least a foot before the derailment.

• Oct. 5, 2015: A passenger train headed from Vermont to Washington, D.C., derailed when it hit rocks that had fallen onto the track from a ledge. The locomotive and a passenger car spilled down an embankment, derailing three other cars and injuring seven people.

• May 12, 2015: Amtrak Train 188 was traveling at twice the 50 mph speed limit as it entered a sharp curve in Philadelphia and derailed. Eight people were killed and more than 200 were injured when the locomotive and four of the train’s seven passenger cars jumped the tracks. Several cars overturned and ripped apart.

• March 9, 2015: At least 55 people were injured when an Amtrak train bound from North Carolina to New Jersey derailed after colliding with an oversized tractor-trailer that was stuck on the tracks in Halifax, North Carolina.

• June 23, 2014: An Amtrak train hit a vehicle that was apparently driving on train tracks in Massachusetts, killing three people in the vehicle and derailing the train just before midnight in a remote area about 24 miles southwest of Boston. None of the 180 people on board the train was injured.

• Oct. 21, 2012: About a dozen passengers and crew members on an Amtrak train from Chicago to Pontiac, Michigan, were injured when two locomotives and one or more coaches derailed after the train lost contact with the track near Niles, Michigan.

• Oct. 2, 2012: Two cars and the locomotive of an Amtrak train carrying about 169 passengers derailed after colliding with a semitrailer in California’s Central Valley. At least 20 passengers suffered minor to moderate injuries. The train was traveling from Oakland to Bakersfield.

• June 24, 2011: A truck slammed into the side of an Amtrak California Zephyr train at a rural crossing 70 miles east of Reno, Nevada, killing six people and injuring dozens. The train was traveling from Chicago to California.

Source: CBS News

Related reading on this website

Who owns Amtrak?

Puerto Rico: Militarization of Hurricane Relief

***

Third Anniversary of Lac-Mégantic Tragedy
• Build a Public Authority that Defends the Public Interest, Not Private Monopoly Interest! 
• Mass Rally in Lac-Mégantic for Rail Safety 

Interviews
• New Rail Line Bypassing Town Centre Needed Soon
– Robert Bellefleur, Spokesperson, Coalition of Citizens and Groups for Rail Safety
• Workers Still Under Framework Where Railways Create and Enforce Their Own Rules
– Brian Stevens, Unifor National Rail Director
• Massive Layoff of CP Maintenance Workers Jeopardizes Rail Lines and Public Safety
– Wade Phillips, Director, Eastern Region, Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, Maintenance of Way Employees Division 
• Monopolies’ Plans for Cameras to Monitor Train Crews Threaten Privacy and Safety
– Don Ashley, National Legislative Director, Teamsters Canada Rail Conference

***

U.S. Owners Threaten to Shut Down Huron Central Railway 

***

Against the Wrecking of the Maritime and Transportation Sector
• Privatization and Deregulation in Service of Financial Oligarchy and Empire-Building Is Not Modernization – Louis Lang 
• No to the Use of Locomotive Audio-Video Recorders to Spy on Workers! – Pierre Chénier 
• Trudeau Liberal Government Seeks to Spy on Railway Workers 
• Discipline and the Modern Economy – K.C. Adams

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