The train carried coal, bound for New Hampshire, and it did not stop.
It did not stop after the emergency call was placed to the railroad dispatcher, who was informed that protesters were on the tracks some three and a half miles in front of the train as it pulled out of Worcester, Massachusetts: “This is an emergency,” the caller said. “There are protesters on the track.… You need to stop the train.”
It did not stop after it was flagged some two miles from the protesters with the standard warning flag, indicating imminent danger ahead. It didn’t stop after the red flag was waved a second time, one mile from the protesters, or a third time, half a mile from the protesters.
And it did not stop, nor attempt to stop, as it bore down on the 20-plus protesters, young and old—all committed to nonviolent protest—who were called by justice on a cold Monday night in the woods of West Bolyston, Massachusetts, to stand on the freight tracks and stop that coal train, with the ultimate goal of bringing a swift end to the burning of coal and all fossil fuels in New England.
Only eight days before, on December 7 and 8, many of the protesters present had successfully blockaded a coal train along the same route in three different locations—Worcester and Ayer, in Massachusetts; and Hooksett, in New Hampshire. Two dozen were arrested, including this reporter. I helped organize the blockade at Ayer, and stood in front of the stopped train with more than a dozen other people, supported by many more. Back in September, 67 (including myself) had been arrested for trespassing on to the coal-fired power plant in Bow, New Hampshire, the train’s final destination.
I know what happened in West Boylston on Monday night because I was there, too, among the protesters when the train didn’t stop. There were more than 30 in all (including the support team), who came from Massachusetts communities and others across New England—from New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, and Rhode Island. Thankfully, no one was injured—physically, at least.
“There is a sense of betrayal, of one human being by another,” said Emma Schoenberg of the Climate Disobedience Center, who was on the tracks in West Boylston and is one of the core organizers of the ongoing, grassroots #NoCoalNoGas campaign of which these blockades are a part. “And after betrayal comes a sense of loneliness—of dehumanization,” Schoenberg said. “It’s very clear what it means when people go up against profit.”
Those directly profiting, in this case, include the CSX Corporation, which owns the train that transported the coal to the Merrimack Generating Station in Bow; Pan Am Railways, which owns and operates the tracks; and the Bow coal plant’s owners, Granite Shore Power, LLC, a joint venture of Atlas Holdings and Castleton Commodities International (CCI). The Bow plant, which runs just a few weeks per year, receives hundreds of millions of dollars in “forward capacity payments,” aka subsidies (more than $188 million for the period from 2018 to 2023), which fall on New England ratepayers—despite renewable alternatives.
I reached out multiple times to CSX and Pan Am, asking for comment on the West Boylston incident. CSX eventually confirmed that the train was theirs, and provided this statement: “The railroad track in this area is owned and operated by Pan Am Railways. CSX emergency operations center did not receive any calls related to this incident.”
Pan Am referred me to Executive Vice President Cynthia Scarano, but no statement was forthcoming at the time this piece was published.
One person who did comment, extensively, was Warren Flatau, acting deputy director of public affairs for the Federal Railroad Administration, which oversees railroad safety in the United States. In e-mail and on the phone, I asked Flatau whether a train operator is required to stop the train when an emergency call is made to the number posted at nearby railroad crossings, and whether the train must stop when there’s a flagger on the tracks indicating danger ahead.
“No, not necessarily,” Flatau told me. It depends, he explained, upon the information provided and the operating terrain. “Dispatchers determine what steps should be taken as specified in the railroad’s own operating rules.”
And when a train operator sees people on the tracks ahead?
“Railroad operating rules typically require an engineer to sound the locomotive horn, and/or slow down or stop if it is safe to do so,” Flatau said. “Anyone who has a locomotive engineer certification, license, they are trained. No one wants to cause injury or death, and if there’s evidence of that, that would be a big deal.”
Still, Flatau was keen to impress upon me that the protesters were trespassing on the railroad property, and even sent me the relevant Massachusetts statute. “But we’re not taking a side,” he told me. “We’re affirming constitutionally protected speech.”
It seemed awfully strange to me, I told Flatau, that the railroad operator didn’t stop the train in West Boylston. It seemed clearly deliberate, given that they had stopped the train for protesters—under almost identical circumstances—only a week before, and yet this time they did not.
He went silent on the phone. “Oooh,” he said, his tone changing.
I explained about the emergency calls and the three sets of flaggers, and that the train was moving slowly, probably less than 10 miles per hour, and had plenty of time to stop. They must have seen the flaggers—and kept right on coming.
“Geez,” Flatau said.
And it seems to me, I went on, that no train engineer in their right mind is going to do that, and risk their career, maybe even criminal charges, if they’re not being given explicit instructions from higher up. It appears this was a corporate decision.
“You’re spot on,” Flatau replied. “That is something—you’d be quite right to push them on that, because that would be recklessness. And you’re right, it would stretch credibility to think that an engineer is going out without someone saying, by the way, there are protesters, and we’ve called the county sheriff and the state police and we want you to be vigilant. It seems that would behoove them.”
“As you said,” Flatau told me, “someone could jeopardize their job, their livelihood, not to mention their own safety. We are not trying to indemnify any railroad. They do not have a right to mow down or strike anyone, if reasonable precautions are taken.”
“If you speak to any railroader or the labor organizations,” Flatau said, “people are trained to do the safe thing.”
What is the “safe thing” at this moment in human history, as the planet approaches and passes climate tipping points, the coal continues to burn, and the railroad industry, including CSX, continues to fund climate denial and obstruction? What is the moral thing? And who is called upon to do it?
This is an emergency. We need to stop the trains.