Sept. 19, 2003, 9:15PM

Caution: Remote-control trains on track


Watch out, Houston! That train loaded with dangerous chemical that is coming down the tracks may not have an engineer at the controls. If Union Pacific gets its way, the railroad right of way could be filled with remote-controlled locomotives, with no engineer on board and handling hazardous cargoes at its switching facilities. Removing the engineer might save the railroad some money, but it won't save lives.

I've been a locomotive engineer since 1984, and in my division alone I represent 94 engineers who are responsible for the safe movement and operation of trains in this area. But this is not an employment issue at all. It is a safety issue, and one which should have the full attention of all residents of Southeast Texas.

Rail facilities in Houston are busy and crowded. Switching performed at Union Pacific's Englewood, Settegast, Strang and Lloyd yards support international commerce as well as local interests. When all goes well, the multimillion-dollar operation is fluid with trains moving on schedule. When a glitch occurs, traffic on the crucial east-west Sunset route, connecting Gulf Coast terminals with West Coast ports, or on the northern route connecting Houston terminals to Chicago and on to Canada, or on the east route connecting Houston terminals to New Orleans and on to the East Coast, and also the southern route, which connects Houston terminals to Laredo and on to Mexico, comes to a screeching halt.

Guidelines and standards are in place to operate trains in and out of the Houston terminals safely and efficiently. Should Union Pacific switch its locomotives to remote control, all bets are off. Engineers would be on the railroad sidings like the rest of us watching operating giant trains like a model-train layout in your child's room.

Remote-controlled train technology is the brainchild of a Canadian technology firm, CANAC, that declares U.S. railroads can save up to $250 million annually using their product. In a marketing campaign costing CANAC $5 million in the United States alone, the safety and production capability of the system has some rail administrators giddy with visions of reduced operating costs -- visions of improved standing on Wall Street and at bonus time. On paper, CANAC's sales pitch is impressive. However, on U.S. railroads, where the volume of traffic is far greater than the isolated lumber mills in Canada, where the system was initially used, and the results are galaxies away from what CANAC and their proponents advertise.

The safety record and productivity of remotely controlled locomotives employed on U.S. railroads has been abysmal. There have been more than 50 accidents since December 2000. This averages at least one a month.

The cause of these accidents? The removal of the most qualified and skilled locomotive engineers from the locomotives controls. These cases illustrate that a poorly trained remote operator is no substitute for a federally licensed locomotive engineer, especially when the remote engineer loses control of the movement or is unaware the train is on a collision course with another train.

In the Houston area, with trains carrying dangerous cargo, such accidents could result in chemical releases or fires that not only shut down rail operations for extended periods, but force city and county emergency services to evacuate large numbers of citizens from neighborhoods and businesses near rail yards. A cursory glance of Houston's geography reveals why: A major rail accident near downtown would leave emergency services overwhelmed, placing thousands of people in jeopardy. The potential for such tragedy exists daily.

Thus far, we have been lucky to have the skill of locomotive engineers operating the trains in, out and around the Houston area with incidents reduced to virtually none.

Recognizing this reality, other municipal authorities, like the city of Baton Rouge, La., have passed legally nonbinding resolutions banning the use of remote-controlled locomotives over concerns about public safety. These resolutions call for the city to be notified before a railroad implements a remote-control facility.

Beware: That Union Pacific remote-controlled train coming down that track is dangerous. despite what the technology salesman and rail managers say. Union Pacific is quietly preparing to introduce such operations in our town. If we don't stop at this railroad crossing, we are going to find ourselves on a collision course with dangerous chemical spills. City councils and county governments in our area should act now to get a handle on possible runaway remote-controlled locomotive operations. They should insist that Union Pacific fully disclose its planned remote-controlled operations, consider public input and use extreme caution in expanding these operations onto our railways.

Remote control is handy when it's used for your TV; it handles channel surfing with a quick efficiency. But on a train I need a real connection; I have to feel the engineer is close to sheer perfection.

Humans have their failings, as we're all too well aware, but I'll take my chances on the guy I think will really care!


 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

  Sept. 19, 2003, 11:56PM

Workers at Tyler plant say safety still at risk Despite reform, employees cite high demands

By LISA FALKENBERG Associated Press 

Executives at McWane Inc., which owns Tyler Pipe, say they worked to improve conditions at the foundry since late 2000.

TYLER -- David Willis was working against the clock. His shift was ending soon and he still had a job to do.

The mechanic had a choice, the kind that has become routine at the Tyler Pipe foundry. He could do things the slow, safe way but maybe not finish in time, or be fast, risky and, if all went well, get the job done.

Like so many colleagues before him, Willis went for speed. Eighteen days later, he left a hospital, lucky to be alive.

Willis skipped the "lock out" process, which would have kept his machines shut off while he changed a 500-pound iron mold. Without that safeguard, the machine was somehow triggered by co-worker Jason Testerman, crushing Willis against an elevated deck. Ribs broken and a lung collapsed, his face turned purple as he shrieked for his life.

"It was the most awful thing I'd ever experienced in my life," Testerman said.

Willis is just the latest Tyler Pipe worker who gambled and lost. Amputations and even deaths have been far too common over the past decade at a company known for its demanding production pressures.

Tyler Pipe officials insist conditions have improved in recent years. But workers point to Willis' July 22 accident and other problems as proof that the East Texas foundry is still fraught with risk.

Melting, molding and pouring iron into pipe is, by nature, dangerous, oppressive work. Laborers say they dread the dark, dusty inferno, where the only solace from the heat is the hot breath of mounted fans.

Many jobs are held by people who can't find work anywhere else. The lure is the pay: Even immigrants, ex-convicts and the illiterate can make $15 an hour at Tyler Pipe, an 850-acre site about 100 miles east of Dallas.

Tyler Pipe began as a family-owned business in 1935 and was sold in 1952 to Tyler Corp., a public company. In 1995, the foundry was bought by McWane Inc., one of the world's largest sewer and water pipe manufacturers.

Tyler Pipe and other foundries owned by McWane were recently the focus of a nine-month examination by the New York Times, the PBS program Frontline and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

The reports labeled McWane -- a historically reclusive, family-owned company based in Birmingham, Ala. -- one of the most dangerous employers in America, with at least 4,600 injuries and nine deaths at its 13 foundries since 1995.

Three of the deaths were at Tyler Pipe, which the media groups used as the case study of McWane's all-costs quest for productivity.

In McWane's first two years running Tyler Pipe, demands remained high while the work force was cut by two-thirds, the examination found. The company disputes that figure and said the work force was cut by half. Among those ousted were quality control and safety inspectors, relief workers and maintenance workers.

To keep up, workers say they were forced to put in 12-hour shifts, sometimes seven days a week. They reported being denied breaks and being forced to repair machines while they were still running, a violation of federal rules.

That's how Rolan Hoskin died in 2000. A master electrician, Hoskin was working on an aging conveyor belt with no metal safety guards -- another violation -- when his arm was caught in the moving machine, jerking his head between the belt and rollers and then splitting his skull.

"We had tragic deaths that should have never happened," McWane President Ruffner Page told the Associated Press recently. " ... But I am personally committed to making sure that we make that a world-class plant in terms of safety."

McWane executives say they have worked to improve conditions at Tyler Pipe since late 2000, when they replaced the foundry's president and other managers.

Company records do show progress. Safety and environmental spending has more than doubled since 2000, up to $20.3 million in 2002. Turnover has dropped and injuries that prevented workers from doing their usual jobs declined 33 percent from 2000 to 2002.

Lost workdays are still higher than the most recent industry standard. In 2001, Tyler reported 17 percent of workers had injuries that prevented them from doing their usual jobs, compared with the industry standard of 7 percent. In 2002, Tyler improved to 13.8 percent. Industry figures are not yet available for 2002.

Since February 2001, 13 safety positions were added or restored, bringing the total to 17.

Some massive machines have been moved above ground so less maintenance work is done in dark, dangerous subterranean pits, like the one where Hoskin died.

More training hours are now required, the company said.

"There's been a real attitude change, which is the bottom line," said John Miles, regional administrator of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. "We've seen a culture change."

While some employees agree, others say the shift is superficial. It's still bottom-line first, they say, noting that training is limited to videos, relief workers are still scarce, and employees are still asked to work alone and do jobs they're not trained to do.

Jim Gillmore, vice president of United Steelworkers of America Local 1157L, said the union filed a grievance this summer when a worker denied a bathroom break urinated in his pants.

Gillmore, an electrician at Tyler Pipe for three years, has his own tales of risk: He says he's often made to stand in water while working on electrical boxes because the company has neglected to fix leaks.

As recently as April, Tyler Pipe agreed to pay $196,000 in penalties for 18 serious violations for things such as falling hazards, blocked exits, a defective hook holding a 5-ton monorail crane and failing to observe procedures that ensure machines are off, according to OSHA records.

Company officials say they're doing all they can, but they can't prevent everything.

"Sometimes," said Page, the McWane president, "mistakes are made."

Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle
  Sept. 23, 2003, 9:01PM

Raises come as city tightens belt While workers face furloughs, officials' salaries get a boost


Just as city employees began receiving letters offering an opportunity to take unpaid furloughs to save the city money, Houston's elected officials got a hefty pay raise Tuesday.

The 12.76 percent raises for the mayor, controller and City Council are courtesy of Harris County Commissioners Court.

Commissioners Court raised judges' pay based on the passage of a state law that allows the county to boost its share of the jurists' salaries for the first time in years.

But because state law links the salaries of Houston's elected officials and other local judges to the pay of district judges, the county's action has a ripple effect.

The ripple is largest for the mayor, whose salary is set by a 1977 state law at 150 percent of what state district judges are paid.

Mayor Lee Brown's current salary is just under $166,000. His successor's annual pay will be almost $187,000.

City Council members likewise will see their salaries jump, from $44,218 to just under $50,000. The controller, who currently is paid slightly more than $110,000 per year, will receive a boost to almost $125,000.

"I don't support it, naturally," said Thomas Webb, who represents city workers in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1550.

"It appears you are constantly padding the people who need it least," Webb said. "All the money is going to the people who are running things. And the people who are actually doing the work, they're the ones being threatened with layoffs and furloughs."

Aware of how it would look to city workers and residents, several council members on Monday said they would forgo the automatic raises, which take effect Jan. 2.

The raises Commissioners Court approved for judges will take effect Oct. 1.

In an effort to balance the budget, city officials say, they have trimmed the work force by more than 1,000 people in recent years, largely through attrition, and they have promised to furlough others this year.

This week, city employees began receiving letters informing them that they could voluntarily take unpaid furloughs to help the city's financial situation. Webb said that, in light of the letters and threats of layoffs, the pending raises for the council and mayor would worsen already low morale among city workers.

Under the pay plan approved Tuesday by Commissioners Court, the county's 59 district judges will see their overall pay rise to $125,000 a year from the current $111,000.

The salaries of the county's four probate judges and 19 court at law judges also will rise to $125,000, since their pay is tied by law to that of district judges. Currently, the probate and county court judges make $121,296 a year.


 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle