Two railway accidents in Southern California kill worker and spill chemical waste

A Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway employee on March 3 was crushed to death between two trains at the company’s transit hub located near the border of La Mirada and Buena Park in Southern California.

According to the Orange County Fire Authority, rescue workers found the victim mangled in the rail yard shortly after midnight and declared him dead at the scene. While the worker’s identity has not been released as of the time of this writing, it was reported that he was in his 40s.

The National Transportation Safety Board issued a statement on Twitter later that morning announcing that three investigators were expected to arrive on the scene shortly.

BNSF engine. (Image Credit: Wikipedia/Augy8400)

In an unrelated incident about 12 hours later, a BNSF freight train derailed near the Mojave Desert community of Ludlow, California, roughly 120 miles away from the earlier incident.

The train was traveling from Kansas City to Barstow with mixed freight when 44 cars derailed and a tank car carrying denatured alcohol leaked several thousand gallons of the highly flammable liquid, which is often used as a solvent and camping stove fuel.

According to the US Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration, there were 21,061 accidents involving BNSF between 1996—when BNSF was established by the merging of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway and Burlington Northern Railroad—and 2020.

Over the last 25 years, BNSF has been involved in 3,102 fatalities, including 82 employee-on-duty deaths, and 25,031 other injuries, involving a staggering 15,903 employees.

When all other American rail companies are included, the total number of accidents jumps to 126,420 between 1996 and 2020, with 21,148 fatalities and 236,329 injuries, including 492 employee deaths and 136,464 employee injuries.

The number of accidents, fatalities, and injuries in the US compared to the total amount of rail miles traveled exceeds those of most other highly industrialized nations. While there undoubtedly are several factors that have led to this carnage, a determining cause has been the deregulation of the rail industry coupled with a lack of extensive rail modernization and investment in safety protocols.

The rail industry—including both passenger and freight—has enacted cost cutting measures wherever possible to keep profitability high.

Historically, there was a relatively steady decrease in occupational fatalities in the United States through 2009, before the trend reversal began showing its effects.

According to the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 129,426 occupational fatalities between 1996 and 2019. The highest number of fatalities in a given year during that time period was 6,238 in 1997, while the lowest number was 4,551 in 2009. That number has steadily risen since 2009 to 5,333 fatalities in 2019.

The steady increase in deaths correlates with the decrease in regulations. Many of these were put into place during previous stages of the class struggle, and undoubtedly saved countless lives. The turning point was the ICC Termination Act of 1995, which abolished the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) created as the regulatory agency by the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887.

Companies complain that the costs of regulation are too high. They spend millions bribing public officials and propagandizing for deregulation. The unions and Democratic Party politicians are willing accomplices.

Workers’ lives must no longer be put on the line to increase the profits of companies. That can only be accomplished when the working class mobilizes independently of the capitalist two-party system and its toadies in the trade unions and takes up the mantle of the revolutionary fight against the capitalist system.

Workers should follow the lead of educators and autoworkers by establishing their own organizations, rank-and-file committees, to fight for increased occupational safety, including the homicidal back-to-work drive before the end of the pandemic. We urge railroad workers to send information about workplace conditions and the join the fight for rank-and-file safety committees.