Enough is enough. The time has come to transform the safety culture of our nation’s railroads, starting with Metro North. Today’s fatal crash of a Metro North passenger train in New York (the third derailment in recent months) is a wake up call that something must change, and that something is an unsafe workplace culture that gives lip service to safety while punishing the reporting of safety hazards and injuries.
Every day the operation of our nation’s railroads threatens the safety of millions of passengers, employees, drivers at crossings, and homeowners along tracks where toxic and explosive materials are hauled. Safety should be the first and last consideration in everything a railroad does. But in 2007, Congress conducted hearings that exposed a railroad culture where managers react to worker reports of injurious safety hazards by retaliating against the worker while ignoring the root cause of the injury. In response, Congress gave whistleblower protection to railroad employees who raise such safety concerns, and allowed punitive damages against railroads who do not stop their abusive unsafe ways: the Federal Rail Safety Act.
Since then, the number of whistleblower claims against railroads has skyrocketed, to the point the railroad industry now is the worst in the nation when it comes to whistleblower complaints. In the past six years OSHA, judges, and juries have awarded millions of dollars in punitive damages in an attempt to force railroads to abandon their unsafe ways and adopt a truly safety friendly culture.
But still the railroads resist. Metro North is just one example. When I tried the first FRSA trial against Metro North in 2012, the jury responded with a verdict awarding $1 million in punitive damages, sending a clear message that the public will no longer tolerate a railroad culture where real safety takes a back seat to retaliation. And yet Metro North (and other railroads) persist in their old ways.
The time has come for a top to bottom transformation in the safety culture of our nation’s railroads, and Metro North Railroad is a good place to start. If today’s fatal passenger train derailment in New York does not trigger that change, nothing will. Here is the OSHA/FRA take on what that change of culture will involve, and here is my take on it.