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Rail workers call for safety improvements in Washington state

caption: File photo of a BNSF train.
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File photo of a BNSF train.
Flickr Photo/Raymond D. Woods Jr. (CC BY-NC-ND)

This week, Democratic Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell said that lawmakers need to pass new safety rules to help prevent train derailments and prepare communities in case of railway emergencies.

Proposed legislation would do that, and also increase penalties for companies that violate federal rail safety statutes. The bill would create new rules, such as requiring a two-person crew on certain freight trains. Some railways have proposed having one person operate some trains.

Advocates for the Railway Safety Act met in Seattle this week, calling on Congress to pass the legislation.

Herb Krohn works as a conductor, brake person, and switch person on trains. He’s also Washington state legislative director for SMART Transportation Division, the union that represents railroad workers.

Krohn says two people managing dozens of cars on a long train is the bare minimum for safety.

“When you're on the head end of a train, unless you're on a curve, you can rarely even see the first couple of commodity cars depending on how many locomotives you have and that's a problem; nobody's monitoring the freight on freight trains.”

Cantwell met with Krohn and other local officials supporting the bill in Pioneer Square on Monday. The group looked at a rail tunnel built in 1904 that runs beneath downtown.

“Look’s old. It needs updating,” Krohn said, peering at notches carved into the tunnel roof to allow large freight to pass through. “It needs considerable safety updating, you know, there are issues with potential communication in the tunnel, fire suppression systems, things of that nature.”

caption: Washington Senator Maria Cantwell and Seattle Fire Battalion Chief Andy Collins inspect the rain tunnel entrance in Pioneer Square on Monday, May 22, 2023.
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Washington Senator Maria Cantwell and Seattle Fire Battalion Chief Andy Collins inspect the rain tunnel entrance in Pioneer Square on Monday, May 22, 2023.
KUOW Photo/ Casey Martin

A battalion chief with the Seattle Fire Department said the nearby fire station at 5th Avenue South and South Washington Street means crews can quickly respond to emergencies inside the tunnel. But Krohn isn’t so sure.

“How are you gonna get down there? You're gonna have to come down by King Street Station, you're gonna have to tear down those fences on this end, same thing on the other end of the tunnel,” he said.

The railway safety bill would increase training for first responders near these kinds of tunnels and provide personal protective equipment in case of dangerous materials.

Railroads would also have to notify states if hazardous materials were being transported so emergency crews could be prepared for a potential disaster.

Cantwell said the fine for violating federal rail laws would increase from about $100,000 to $10 million.

Krohn said the bill is necessary to protect the lives of rail workers and to keep commerce moving smoothly, especially in a major port like Seattle.

“The big concern is this could be a major choke point if something bad were to happen,” he said. “Because it would obstruct all the north, south movement of freight in western Washington.”

The Railway Safety Act has passed out of committee and now heads to the full Senate for approval.

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