The United States’ railroad history has long been muddied by corporate monopoly, corruption of justice, and genocide. Unfortunately, Rail has not yet fully grown beyond its shadowy legacy.
In 2014, the Supreme Court of the United States eliminated aggregate limits for individual campaign contributions in the ruling McCutcheon v. Federal Election Committee. This ruling opened the floodgates for the nation’s energy and extraction barons to make even larger donations to candidates who are friendly to their industries. The Court ruled that the contribution of funds to a campaign is the equivalent of Free Speech and does not, “garner ‘influence over or access to’ elected officials or political parties.” Many experts have publicly questioned what this ruling means for the future of American Democracy.
Since this ruling, we have seen a record increase in the number of candidates elected to government with the campaign funding support of corporate interests. At this same time, according to a majority of the Earth’s scientists, human beings are destroying the Earth’s life support systems. When policymakers sanction radical extraction projects at the cost of the survival of the human species, we can begin to identify a conflict of interest between the corporate objectives manifested in government, and human health.
The Idle No More movement; made up of Native, Indigenous, First Nation, and non-native organizers throughout the Americas (and increasingly throughout other continents); is fighting to stop these government-sanctioned radical extraction projects through protests in State and Provincial Capitals as well as through rail and highway barricades.
Union Pacific, one of a few monopolies owning entire rail lines in North America, has recently made known to local governments that it hopes to increase trains operating through DuPage County two to threefold.
One might question why a plan for such an increase in freight traffic through DuPage County might occur. People across the continent are increasingly skeptical about allowing pipelines through their communities. Some communities are growing bold enough to publicly question who truly benefits when tax-payers foot a hefty portion of the bill for such industry-owned infrastructure and inevitable cleanup. Corporations have begun to shift their focus to rail as an escape from mounting community pushback against pipeline development. Both grassroots organizations and climate change preparedness organizations such as 350 and TckTckTck have also helped to chip away at long-standing public relations campaigns that have aimed to paint radical extraction projects as wealth creation for local communities, when in reality these projects are largely bankrupting our present and future economies.
In December of 2014, InsideClimate News, The Weather Channel, and The Investigative Fund released a new report on the increasing pressure to cart toxic and dangerous fossil fuels by rail. In the study they identify four troubling shortcomings of the Federal Railroad Administration, despite claims of increased security measures since the July sixth explosion in 2013 that left two million gallons of crude oil and 47 people dead in the rural town of Lac-Megantic in Canada. The text below is pulled word-for-word from their report.
- Too few government inspectors. The railroad agency has only 76 track inspectors, assisted by a few dozen state inspectors, to oversee the operations of some 780 railroad companies that manage 140,000 miles of track, plus railroad bridges. By its own estimate the agency can inspect less than 1 percent of the railroad activities under its oversight each year.
- Little oversight of railroad bridges. The FRA has set no engineering standards for railroad bridges, relying almost entirely on individual railroads to inspect, maintain and repair their own bridges and trestles, some of them built more than a century ago. The agency doesn’t keep an inventory or even a count of the bridges, estimated to number between 70,000 and 100,000.
- Secrecy. State and local governments can’t independently assess the condition of local rail infrastructure because their inspectors don’t have access to the railroads’ design and maintenance records, or to the tracks, trestles and bridges themselves. The railroads consider such information proprietary; the tracks and bridges are their private property and disclosure of those materials is voluntary.
- Meager penalties. Fines are low, on the theory that the cost and consequences of an accident are sufficient incentive for railroads to properly maintain their tracks and bridges. In 2013, the FRA issued $13.9 million in fines to an industry whose top-seven revenue gainers alone took in nearly $84 billion.
One may be asking at this point, what does any of this have to do with DuPage County?
The increase in the transportation of crude oil by rail could very possibly affect us directly. Choose DuPage, an organization that promotes development in DuPage County, points out that the Chicagoland region serves as the, “only gateway where all six Class-One North American railroads can interchange traffic,” and furthermore that, “Fifty percent of U.S. rail freight passes through Chicago metro region’s rail yards.”
This region is at the heart of the nation’s rail infrastructure, which also means that we could possibly bear much of the burden of dangerous train derailments if rail traffic of these fossil fuels does increase.
It can sometimes be unsettling to call into question such trenchantly accepted and trusted pillars of american society. For some in our community, rail is deeply rooted in a shared cultural identity and/or pride. On top of that, once you question the safety of something- then you have to actually deal with the repercussions of that realization. The age old adage “ignorance is bliss” is one that many people cling to in the face of overwhelming adversity. But this humble correspondent hopes to tack on an important second half to that adage so that the phrase rings truer: “ignorance is bliss, but knowledge is power.”
Facing the fact that our collapsing rail infrastructure is dangerous and that the government is doing little to protect its citizens from corporate negligence can be overwhelming. Trains run straight through our downtown shopping districts, past our homes, our schools, and our houses of worship. But we don’t owe much to these monopoly rail corporations. They certainly aren’t large job creators. In fact, these companies raked in profits measured in the billions in 2014 alone and yet, taxpayers of the Chicagoland area are expected to pay for the company’s rail improvements.
There are a few steps that We the People can take to regain our power in this scenario.
First, we can demand that the proprietary status of railroad information is made public and accessible to all community governments and citizens, so that any community has the legal right to hold a rail corporation accountable for any malfeasance in their past or present dealings. A community cannot ensure its safety until this happens- until that day, we are fumbling through the dark across railroad tracks, so to speak.
Second, we can demand our local governments ban the shipment of crude oil in DOT 111 railcars like the black railcar in this article’s photo. These cars are extremely dangerous according to the National Transportation Safety Board, which has been urging the immediate ban of DOT 111 fossil fuel transport since 2012.
Third, when projects are proposed that expect taxpayers to pay for a corporation’s infrastructure, we can organize en masse to protest the funneling of taxpayer monies to the pockets of faraway stockholders. Again, many of these companies are making billions of dollars every year and so can afford to invest some of their revenue back into working class communities to upgrade the very infrastructure that keeps their businesses going.
Fourth, we can learn to speak train. All trains have federally mandated signage that must be present on each and every freight car. These signs tell you what is inside of each train car and how dangerous the material is. By learning these signs, we can hold the Federal Rail Administration accountable to the laws already set in place to mandate safety procedures for freight trains carrying these materials, especially if rail traffic through DuPage County increases. If trains are not following safety protocol, any citizen has the right to call the police to report the breach of law. Follow this link to browse through train signage and its meaning. (If you’re interested in investigating a specific rail line in your community, you can find the name of it on this map).
Fifth, we can call our local and state officials, letting them know that we are concerned about our municipalities in relation to rail lines. We can demand to know what action plan they propose to prevent our towns, cities, and villages from becoming the next Lac-Megantic.
This Correspondent believes it should be commonly regarded a civic duty for every United States citizen to remain vigilant in the protection of Democracy. If rail traffic does increase through DuPage County as predicted, and if that rail is carrying dangerous cargo- it is important to ensure that we as a community rise up to make sure it is done with the most possible care and attention that can be provided.
Coming together is a beginning,
staying together is progress,
working together is success.