Union Pacific’s Bailey Yard is the largest in the world according to the Guinness Book of World Records, but the IBEW railroad members of North Platte, Neb. Local 1920 say conditions there are deteriorating, and membership is dropping fast. It’s a situation typical of many freight rail shops today.
The explosion on September 14 highlights the dangers of such conditions. A rail car carrying perchloric acid exploded, causing nearby cars to also catch fire. Black smoke from the yard led first responders to evacuate residents and close off roads. The fires took five hours to extinguish.
The IBEW immediately requested an inspection. In less than two weeks, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Federal Railroad Administration Chief Amit Bose visited Lincoln to investigate the site and meet with railroad management, union members, and Lincoln County officials. The FRA is still investigating the cause of the fire.
“We were getting photos from people in town with this plume of smoke, and we didn’t know what was going on,” said Local 1920 Local Chairman Mike Gage. Local 1920 members at Bailey perform modification installations and locomotive repairs and maintenance.
Management never ordered on-campus evacuations, so Gage and Machinists Local 180 Chairman Brad Halligan relocated members away from the scene, where no one was seriously hurt. Halligan also alerted second-shift IBEW workers to prevent them from going to the site. They should have been notified by Union Pacific.
“We have no emergency evacuation procedures,” Gage said. “We used to have drills, but a lot of that was abandoned during the pandemic. They never picked up on it again.”
“It’s not too soon to say that what happened in North Platte could have been something that grabbed national headlines had the wind been blowing a little bit different or things had gone just a little bit different in the yard that day,” Buttigieg said in one of the meetings.
In the eighteen years that Gage has worked at Bailey, he’s seen a sharp decline in safety and overall quality by railroad management.
Gage said, “We used to maintain the fleet at a higher level, but now we simply throw a Bandaid on it and get it out the door. We have fewer people due to cost cutting measures like the precision scheduled railroading implemented by the rail carriers, and now we just address the big problems and send them down the line.”
Over the last seven years, the number of members in Local 1920 has significantly decreased, from over 300 to around 160 today. This is not a coincidence. The introduction of precision scheduled railroading, a term used for cost-cutting, has severely damaged the industry’s workforce. Despite record profits for the carriers, the workforce has not benefited.
Following the explosion, Mike Gage and other members of the Midwest Nebraska Central Labor Council are assisting the county commission’s investigation of the event. The railyard in Lincoln County has a high union density and, due to the carriers’ severe cuts, labor is unified today.
“We all get along and look out for each other,” Gage said. “We are in a much better position than when PSR started.”
One example is how the CLC is mobilizing in favor of the 2023 Railway Safety Act. The law would mandate emergency activation plans and ensure only qualified workers perform skilled craft work.
“There are a lot of protections that we could get from that to keep something like this from happening again,” Gage said. “If it does, I hope there is a more organized response and a sense of urgency.”
The Bailey Complex is a massive facility located between vast cornfields. It spans eight miles in length and two miles in width, with over 315 miles of tracks. The complex houses train operations and repair shops where workers service, inspect, and reclassify freight cars 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “You used to see multigenerational families: fathers, sons, and grandsons,” Gage said. “Now people say I don’t want my kid to work out there.”
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Photo caption: In Nebraska, FRA Administrator Amit Bose in a safety vest with union members from left, Machinists Local 180 Chairman Brad Halligan and President Mike Helmink, IBEW Local 1920 Local Chairman Mike Gage, and Travis Broadway and Greg Barred from Machinists Local 602.