July 27: Anchorage Daily News on Alaska Railroad and fuel spills:

Posted: Monday, July 31, 2000

It's easy to imagine why railroad workers developed the habit of using cheater wires to hold open safety valves when draining fuel from locomotives. Routine maintenance becomes routine; the wires allowed workers to do other maintenance while fuel drained so they could change a filter.

To a worker or supervisor scrambling to get things done and keep trains running on time, the cheater makes more sense than manually holding open the valve, which is the proper safety procedure.

How many of us have cut just that kind of corner? How many of us have used a cheater pipe for leverage to break a lug nut loose on a tire, disarmed a smoke alarm because it shrieked at the scent of bacon frying in innocence on the stove, fired up a chain saw for a few cuts without safety goggles? We know there's a risk, just as we know we'll get away with it 99 times out of 100. So we scoff at the notion of playing it by the book, and we get the job done.

The trouble, of course, is that one time out of 100 is all it takes.

The Alaska Railroad stumbled into the one-time trap in February, when the cheater was left on the valve and the locomotive leaked fuel in two different places in the Anchorage yard. Now the state has accused the railroad of criminal negligence.

Since that fuel spill, railroad supervisors have made it clear that using cheaters on locomotives won't be tolerated. The rule book is a burden, but it's there for a reason, as this spill made clear.

If nothing else, the railyard spill is another example of why the firefighter's mentality when it comes to safety and spill prevention is vital. That mentality demands constant vigilance and preparedness.

Often in work there's a difference between designs on paper and how we actually produce. What works on the drawing board doesn't always translate to the field or the floor. Apparently, that difference explains the use of cheater wires on Alaska Railroad locomotives. According to the state, some workers said that was a way to save time for an understaffed railroad.

That's understandable. It's not excusable. If something is lacking in manpower or organization in the railroad's operation then the railroad should fix that so that the temptation to cut corners won't be so strong. If it's simply a matter of underscoring the need to follow safe maintenance procedures, then the railroad should do what it's done since the February spill, and make sure cheater wires are gone and stay gone.

Ernie Piper, railroad vice president for health, safety and the environment, said the railroad has corrected the problem.

What's worrisome about the state's charges against the railroad is the assertion that the safety bypass had become common. That's a danger that Alaskans learned about in 1989 when the Exxon Valdez ran aground and it soon became clear that Alyeska, Exxon, the state and the federal government all were ill prepared to respond to the spill. Part of the reason for that was that all hands had gotten lazy. Gear, people and leadership were lacking. Years of safe passage had lulled the responsible people to irresponsible sleep. Neglect had become common.

It's a mighty leap from a railyard mess to the Exxon Valdez. But let's remember two things.

One, the railroad's performance in recent months has been poor enough to prompt Gov. Tony Knowles to order a Cabinet-level review.

Two, the principles of vigilance and preparedness are the same whether we're talking about a seagoing supertanker or a railroad locomotive. Adhere to the rules for prevention, be ready to respond swiftly when those rules are broken or prevention just doesn't work.

Cut corners and you're asking for trouble.

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