May 23, 2005
The derailment of a Union Pacific freight train near San Bernardino, California, on April 4 caused a leak of hazardous chemicals, including chlorine – a deadly gas which was used as a weapon during World War I. More than 300 people were evacuated in nearby residential areas. No one was killed, but residents have been reporting illnesses such as headaches, nausea and rashes.
It's only the most recent in a string of such accidents. In Macdona, Texas, a chlorine leak following a train crash killed three people and injured dozens last June. Then, in January, another collision in Graniteville, South Carolina resulted in nine deaths and over 500 injuries due to chlorine exposure.
From 1990 to 2004, 9231 train accidents involving dangerous chemicals were reported, and the companies admitted that 504 of those resulted in leaks. Many of these accidents happened near residential areas, causing death and injury to residents, in addition to railroad workers.
With accidents on the increase, the railroads increasingly blame them on "human error." This is nothing but a euphemism for "fatigue."
Before the Macdona accident, for example, the engineer and conductor of the train that ran a stop sign and slammed into another freight train had fallen asleep. Both of these workers had worked more than 60 hours in long, irregular shifts the previous week.
Especially on freight trains, railroad companies routinely assign engineers, conductors and brake operators 60 to 70 hours a week. The workers may be called in to work any time during the day or night, disrupting their sleep patterns.
In the mid-1980s, the National Transportation Safety Board listed fatigue as a safety problem that railroad companies must deal with. Nothing has come out of such government "recommendations," though. To the contrary: railroad companies have actually downsized their workforce in the name of "cost cutting." Since 1990, for example, railroad employment has declined more than 25%, while the volume of freight transported has increased by 60%!
These accidents are caused by the unending drive of the railroad companies to maximize their profits by overworking their crews. These accidents, with all the avoidable deaths and suffering they cause, are a direct result of the capitalist system.