September 5, 2014

CHICAGO (Sept. 5)—Following an investigation triggered by a complaint from SMART-TD Local # 1433, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has found that Canadian Pacific Railway officials violated both federal law and the carrier’s own operating rules when it ordered a freight train to depart its initial terminal (and travel through several densely populated Chicago suburbs) without providing the crew with a manifest showing the contents and position of cars carrying hazardous materials.

The alleged incident occurred over the night of March 31 on the CP’s Elgin Subdivision, where train No. 281-31 was ordered to depart and run eastward from Bensenville Yard through the city of Chicago.

According to an April 9 e-mail from Local # 1433 Secretary/Treasurer Thomas G. Nuzzo, CP supervisors ordered the train to depart Bensenville without its conductor and without the required manifest.

“The crew was told that the conductor and a manifest would be cabbed out to the head end at Thatcher Ave. in Elmwood Park, IL.,” Nuzzo wrote. This was done, and the conductor joined the train with the manifest.

But according to Nuzzo’s report, when the conductor radioed the dispatcher with a request for time to go through the manifest with the engineer he was told to highball the train immediately, a decision confirmed by local CP management.

“[CP Manager] told the crew over the road radio channel (094-094) that the train had a good roll-by inspection,” Nuzzo wrote, noting, however, that “The train head end was clearly past [his] position and it was not determined whether [he] had a train list to check the proper placarding and placement of the hazardous materials.”

It is not clear how far the train proceeded before the conductor was able to get a clear picture of which cars contained hazardous materials and where they stood in the train.

“It could have been as many as three suburbs, plus parts of the city of Chicago, said SMART-TD Illinois Legislative Director Robert W. Guy.

“All of the territory along that right of way is densely populated, with both residential and industrial properties abutting the tracks,” Guy said. “There are many busy grade crossings, some of which have a bad record for car-train accidents and there is a busy rail interlocking as well. If this train had derailed or collided with another train or a motor vehicle, the conductor would have had no documentation to help local emergency responders identify potentially lethal hazmat loads.”

The FRA investigated the union’s charges, and on Aug. 24 FRA Region IV Hazardous Materials Specialist Alan J. Budleski wrote Guy:

“The outcome of the investigation did determine CP had ordered eastbound train 281-31 to depart the yard without a document that reflected the current position of rail cars containing hazardous materials in the train per 49 CFR 174.26(a). Accordingly, these findings have been forwarded to the Federal Railroad Administration, Office of Chief Counsel, with a recommendation for the assessment of civil penalties.”

“The April 1 incident on the CP is another reflection of the head-‘em up, move-‘em-out cowboy mentality common among North American railroad officials today,” Guy said. “The carriers are struggling with unprecedented traffic demands that exceed the capacity of the infrastructure.

“Operating windows are rare,” Guy said. “When a congested stretch of track experiences a rare opening, the pressure is on to move a train through it before it closes up again.”

According to an article by veteran railroad correspondent Fred Frailey in the October issue of Trains magazine, that pressure is especially severe on Canadian Pacific’s operations in Chicago. Unlike rival Canadian National, which used its 2009 purchase of the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railroad to bypass Chicago, CP can reach its connections only by accessing some of the city’s most congested yards and main-line tracks.

“Its trains must fight their way from Bensenville, northwest of downtown Chicago, to either Clearing or trackage-rights connections with NS or CSX, all on the South Side,” Frailey wrote. “Moreover, 70 percent of the huge 2013 grain harvest along its U.S. lines is billed through Chicago, causing further problems. Crews are an issue, too. One day in mid-July, CP held seven westbound trains at Bensenville, for up to 10 hours, for lack of people. Not surprisingly, terminal dwell time for cars is twice what it was in 2013.”

Frailey failed to note, however, that CP closed its Bensenville hump in an economy move last year.

“The railroad is the victim of its own cost-cutting mentality,” Guy said. “The managers are forcing the crews to break safety rules in order to compensate for management’s mistakes.”

Guy praised the CP crew that reported the April 1 safety violation.

“They handled it absolutely by the book,” he said.

“They did not challenge their superiors or refuse to execute what they knew to be an illegal order,” he said. “They complied with their instructions and then afterward reported the incident to a local union officer so it could be moved up the chain to the Illinois Legislative Board for forwarding to the FRA.

“They recorded the names of all of the managers and officials who directed them to break the law and accurately cited the time and location of each critical event,” Guy said. “Using that information the FRA was able to come to a speedy and fair conclusion and fine the railroad for its violation of the law.”