Are CP Rail policies putting our people and our community at risk? At least one former employee says yes

Dear Editor,

The scrutiny of our rail system continues after tragic accident in Lac Megantic. Our mayor is waiting to hear the details of new legislation that will require railways to disclose hazardous materials to the municipalities they are running through. This may be a step in the right direction. Mayor Dave Raven is correct that the details will be the important factor in whether this is effective or not.

There have in fact been many changes to operation rules since this tragedy unfolded and there are still many questions unanswered. It is interesting to note that dangerous commodities can no longer be left unattended on the main track. However, the same dangerous loads can be left unattended in a yard or off the main track. The “devil is in the details” indeed.

CP Rail would have us believe that they are operating safer than ever.  The reality of the business is that they are running longer more dangerous trains, scrimping on maintenance and repair, and forcing longer shifts and poor working conditions on workers. All this with the threat of reduced pensions. Meanwhile, Mr. Harrison collects the highest compensation paid to any CEO in Canada. Maclean’s Magazine reported recently that Hunter Harrison was Canada’s highest paid CEO at well over over 40 million dollars. At the same time Mr Harrison is trying to convince CP workers to take less.

Back in Quebec, CP Rail is now being taken to task for its involvement in the Lac Megantic disaster. Lawsuits are pending. CP has publicly complained about the fairness of being ordered by the Quebec Government to pay some of the cleanup costs in Lac Megantic.

In CP Rail’s opinion, you can pass off dangerous commodities to a third party and wash your hands of any responsibility. It is now up to the court system in Quebec to debate that reasoning. I suspect they may see this differently.

The Harper government is not innocent in this either. They relaxed legislation to allow a rail carrier to operate with one-man crews and a liability insurance that was inadequate.

Recently the Harper government is trying to pass legislation that will change the “right to refuse” dangerous work. This is yet another move that will allow the railways to police themselves. This will effectively remove an important safety tool that is sometimes the last resort to preventing a mishap. It is seldom used,however is a tool that has been valuable to uncover shortcomings it  the operations.

This is only part of the puzzle. One other important factor that needs to be addressed is crew fatigue. In my opinion this was a factor in the Lac Megantic disaster as well as many other rail accidents across the country. A good portion of rail accidents happen because of the human error. Crews are subjected to long hours of service, ridiculous amount of time at the away from home terminal, and irregular hours. It is impossible for crews to remain alert at all times under these conditions. Recently CP Rail removed a local rest clause that allowed the running trades employees to have up to 30 hours rest. This was important for crews as they are often working irregular shift patterns and needed this to reset the sleep pattern. There are many rail workers in our community. Just ask them how this is working. No one will give a positive spin on this. One engineer recently told  me that on most days he feels like he is walking around with a ice pick in his forehead. At best he feels jet lagged. Is this conducive to safety? I think not. Another rail worker told me he was held at the away-from-home terminal for 21 hours, then he was deadheaded home in a taxi cab. The reasoning behind that is astounding. Sadly, this is now common practice. He told me this was putting such a stress on his family life that he was actively searching for other employment. This is, as well, a common theme. Employees now work in an atmosphere of fear. This is the reality of the situation. Again this is not conducive to safe operations.

Recently, a business publication published a scathing article about the CP Rail financial situation. You can read t here:

I quote only a short piece of this:

“At the same time, the spate of derailments of CP trains triggered by Harrison’s ruthless cost cutting and aggressive management of preventative maintenance, train lengths and speeds in an atmosphere of fear will eventually catch up to the company. I hope it does so before any more lives are lost. CP Rail today represents most of what is wrong with North American business “activists” who think they know better. Oust a blue chip board of directors, install a reckless and mercenary CEO with a short term agenda, destroy a few careers, humble organized labour, take risks with train length and speed, and contribute to a few dozen deaths. All in the name of making a hedge fund a short term gain. Good for Bill Ackman, he has made a lot of money for his investors and now he is cashing out. What he leaves behind is not pretty.” 

Well stated.

At CN Rail investors are now asking hard questions about the compensation paid to Hunter Harrison and his operations group. The accusation is that performance figures were falsified and compensation paid out to management based on those numbers. Will this come to roost at CP Rail as well?

I would also point out that all of the stocks purchased by Bill Ackman were purchased on the New York exchange. All profits taken will be funnelled south of the border as well. The majority of the jobs lost and “labour pain” is felt here in Canada. Why then does the Harper government think this is good business? What benefit is this to us? It certainly does not ensure long-term sustainability of this industry.

Back on the local scene, we should be asking the hard questions about what moves through our City and what plans there are for a response to a mishap. The closest Hazmat Response team is in Kamloops. Another shortcoming. We would, in an emergency rely totally on our local fire department and City-funded emergency co-ordinations. Thankfully they are well equipped and highly skilled.

If we are to ensure that our rail systems are safe we need to push our government to strictly enforce current legislation. Transport Canada needs to enforce these rules and when necessary levy fines to ensure enforcement. CP Rail often violates the hours of service regulations for instance. I have yet to see them fined or taken to task for this. Lack of enforcement has empowered the corporation and those that work in management to abuse this more and more. This is being well documented by the union but no one is listening.

Transport Canada and the Harper government needs to quit the practice of letting the railway police itself.

Our local press has expressed to me that they have difficulty getting local railway workers to talk as they are all in fear of there jobs. It seems the only people who can speak for CP Rail are doctors — spin doctors that is. Rest assured the corporation is spending plenty on that service these days.

Our hearts and grief continue to go out to the lost souls and destroyed families in Lac Megantic. I continue to ask myself, what will it take to prevent this from happening again?

Finally my advice is to sell your CP Rail stocks and hug a railroader. In that order.

Gary Starling