DENVER — The National Transportation Safety Board believes a broken rail is likely what caused a deadly train derailment in Pueblo last week, which shut down both directions of Interstate 25 for days.
Long before the accident, Colorado rail workers stressed the importance of increasing safety in the industry. Lawmakers in the state plan to do just that in the next legislative session.
Denver7 spoke with an experienced Colorado rail worker anonymously about the working conditions and safety concerns he believes should be addressed. He chose to be anonymous to protect his career, which he said offers great benefits and retirement.
“You're on call 24/7, 365 days. It doesn't matter when, where, you're ready to go. And whether or not, you're going to do the job anyways," the rail worker said. “The lack of sleep is one of the major things that we have to deal with... We have no life.”
A "rest period of 48 hours is mandatory after six consecutive on-duty periods. If a seventh on duty-period does occur, then a rest period of 72 hours is mandatory," a spokesperson for the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) said. The spokesperson continued to say the "hours of service" laws mandate freight railroad employees get 10 hours of undisturbed rest when they're off duty.
The FRA does not currently regulate freight train length, but they do study the matter. The Colorado rail worker Denver7 spoke to said the longer trains are, the more dangerous they can be.
“Trains are getting longer, they're getting heavier, but the reaction time still might be the same from the conductor," he said. “The public doesn't really know what goes on in our industry, as to the work, the amount of stress, the exhaustion levels, the safety levels. You know, it's very hush hush.”
The rail worker explained an instance where the train he was in struck and killed a person on the tracks. He said there was not enough time to stop the train from when they realized someone had jumped in front of it. He had to search for the body of the person who was killed.
“Nobody really goes into detail about anything. Nobody really wants to know the details. Nobody wants to share this," the rail worker said. “I can still see it. I can perfectly explain where everything was, and how it was... It's not going to be something that you forget... Even though I saw everything, I just kind of pushed it out on my head. And I tried moving on with my day. But, I knew my anxiety levels were a lot higher than normal.”
The FRA does not have a specific term for when there's a death on the tracks. The term "incident" is used to describe "situations resulting in casualties or for-grade crossing collisions." Railroads are responsible for reporting fatalities, injuries and illnesses to the FRA.
Federal data shows last year, 675 people, who are referred to as trespassers, died on train tracks. That number does not include highway-rail crossings.
The 675 deaths on train tracks in 2022 represents an estimated 58% increase when compared with 2013 figures.
Following the death that the Colorado rail worker Denver7 spoke to experienced, he said the mental health support he received was inadequate.
“It wasn't anybody saying, 'Hey, are you okay? Do you need to talk to somebody?' It was more like 'Hey, here's a card if you want to talk to somebody'... I did speak to somebody. And when I spoke to them, I think I was just surprised by how desensitized I was. I mean, I didn't really feel too sad. I didn't feel too upset. I didn't feel too angry. It was a very odd sensation, and it didn't feel normal. I'll say that much," the rail worker said. “In our industry, it's just another day on the railroad.”
Still, the rail worker said every time he goes over that specific piece of track, he can feel his heart start beating faster and believes his anxiety is elevated.
The FRA has rules regarding critical incident stress plans, which must cover the following elements:
- Informing directly-involved, covered employees of their options for relief (for the remainder of their duty tour)
- Timely relief for remainder of duty (after documentation)
- Timely transportation to the home terminal
- Offering counseling, guidance and appropriate support services- Employers can do this by: providing a card with information about an employee assistance program (EAP); having the manager alert the employee to available services; or conducting a follow-up call from EAP, manager, or peer support to the affected employee
- Permitting additional relief as necessary/as requested
- Addressing how employees will be covered when working on track owned by another railroad
“Nobody wants to take on this baggage. And, and I say this too, because this is a dangerous industry. If you bring these thoughts in, while you're at work, people can get killed," the Colorado rail worker told Denver7. "We operate in your backyard. And I want people to know and be aware that they should raise questions with their representatives saying are what is going on here?"
Denver7 spoke with the anonymous rail worker months before the Pueblo derailment, and he predicted that an unfortunate derailment would shine a light on the issues within the industry.
“They've been placing their money and profits ahead of the safety," the rail worker told Denver7 about the companies involved. "We've had a couple of derailments here in Colorado, and they haven't really gotten any attention. And that was mainly because there wasn't any hazardous or environmental disaster. If there had been, it would make national news in this giant metropolitan area.”
State Senator Lisa Cutter, D- Jefferson County, served on the Transportation Legislation Review Committee this year. She plans to sponsor a piece of legislation next session that has several goals, which include:
- The length of a train must not exceed 8,500 feet;
- With certain exceptions, railroads must operate, maintain, and report the location of wayside detector systems. A wayside detector is an electronic device or a series of devices that monitors passing trains for defects.
- A train may not obstruct a public crossing for longer than 10 minutes unless the train is continuously moving or is prevented from moving by circumstances beyond the railroad's control;
- Any crew member of a train may report to the crew member's designated union representative a safety violation, injury, or death that occurred during the operation of a train. After receiving a report of a violation, a designated union representative may enter a railroad's place of operation to investigate the report during reasonable hours and after notifying the railroad.
- The Public Utilities Commission (PUC) may impose fines for the violation of these safety requirements or for denying a union representative's access to the railroad's place of operation. The bill requires the PUC to develop guidelines for determining, imposing and appealing fines.
“There's certain things that they govern federally, and there's certain things that we can do the state, so we have to be careful about threading that needle," Cutter said about the legislation. “There's always issues when you do regulations that impact companies and commerce that do business in other states. We can only go so far. But sometimes when you do the right thing, other states will jump on board, and then pretty soon, it's a national model or there's federal legislation to reinforce that.”
Rail workers hope the legislation is the start of real change within the industry in Colorado.
If the bill were to pass in it's current form, it would take effect on July 1, 2024.