Fired Florida CSX conductor seeking whistleblower protection, changes within company

Fired Florida CSX conductor seeking whistleblower protection, changes within company
By: Kevin Clark , Action News Jax

Updated: Dec 1, 2017 - 9:46 AM

A former CSX employee says he was fired for speaking out about safety concerns to the company and in an interview with Action News Jax.

Louis Billingsley is now seeking whistleblower protection.

During a July interview with Action News Jax, Billingsley shared his concerns about the abolition of certain safety procedures for rail workers. He was fired by CSX this month after nearly 12 years as a conductor.

One policy change eliminated the three-step rule, an extra safeguard to keep cars from moving when employees are working between or under them.

Another change banned the use of the brake stick, meaning conductors now have to tie the brakes by hand.

“It’s just a matter of time before someone seriously gets hurt,” Billingsley told Action News Jax Thursday.

CSX has been under scrutiny for other operating changes since CEO Hunter Harrison took over earlier this year.

As CSX has cut jobs to try to increase efficiency, it has consolidated trains to make them longer.

Billingsley claims the trains have become too long, making it hard for rail employees to communicate from one end to the other.

The longer trains often block neighborhoods and streets for hours at a time on their way in and out of railyards.

“We need to show that we care about the public, we care about the people, and sometimes that’s worth more than record-breaking profits,” Billingsley said.

But Billingsley says when he raised these concerns, CSX became retaliatory.

A day after Billingsley interviewed with Action News Jax in July, he received a short voicemail telling him he’d been fired.

“I couldn’t believe it, I was like, ‘Wow, they really want to shut you up,’” said Billingsley.

Not 40 minutes later, another voicemail from CSX told him he’d been rehired.

“I think they realized what they did, and they put me back into service,” he said.

But for the next couple of months after that, Billingsley claims he was targeted, and that his superiors followed him around and watched his every move.

“Almost two months later, they got me. On a minor infraction,” he said.

The dismissal letter obtained by Action News Jax says Billingsley was fired for running in the gauge of the rail, operating a switch with one hand, and “not maintaining visual contact with the equipment while making a shove move.”

But Billingsley tells us everyone within CSX knew he was fired because he spoke out against the changes associated with Precision Railroading, and what he calls the “culture of fear” within the company.

“It was all from that interview I placed,” he said. “And I did the interview because I think the public needs to know what kind of environment CSX has become.”

When Action News Jax reached out to CSX for this story, a company spokesperson told us:

"CSX does not comment on individual personnel matters. Safety remains CSX’s highest priority in every aspect of our operations."

She then added:

"CSX denies any allegation that it would retaliate against an employee who raises safety concerns."

Billingsley has retained an attorney, who is filing a complaint with OSHA.

The attorney, John Magnuson, told Action News Jax that if Billingsley doesn’t get his job back, they’ll likely file a whistleblower protection lawsuit in federal court.

“I’m an example of what happens when you open your mouth and voice a concern,” Billingsley said.

Fla. rail worker fights firing after speaking out

on safety

Vol. 82/No. 2 January 15, 2018

Louis Billingsley, a freight rail conductor with 12 years experience, is fighting his firing after speaking out against unsafe practices and conditions at the CSX railroad in a televised interview on CBS Action News Jax in Jacksonville, Florida. Jacksonville is CSX’s corporate headquarters.
CSX, one of the two large Class 1 railroads covering the eastern half of the country, along with Norfolk Southern, has been on a drive to combine trains, eliminate workers’ jobs and make more profit for the bosses and bondholders.

Action News Jax reported last June that freight trains often keep traffic backed up in the area for hours, preventing people from getting to work or to medical or other appointments.

One woman interviewed had to miss her treatment for Stage 3 cancer, as all roads out of her neighborhood were blocked by a train.

These longer trains are part of a drive for profits in the rail industry, especially in the seven Class 1 roads in North America — which each rake in at least $453 million annually. Together they control 69 percent of the industry’s trackage, 90 percent of its workers and 94 percent of all freight revenue.

When Billingsley was on a train crew that kept a series of crossings closed, he told Action News in July that seeing people disrupted this way “was heartbreaking.” Billingsley told the reporter that at one point he separated one of the trains in the Dinsmore neighborhood that had blocked traffic for two hours.

“These trains are getting longer and doubling up,” Billingsley told Action News, adding that CSX “stocks are going up, that’s all they care about.”

“I have to walk back here and fix the train, and my radio can’t even reach the engineer it’s so long,” he said.

The day after the interview was aired, CSX sent Billingsley a voicemail saying he was fired. Then 40 minutes later the company sent another voicemail saying he was rehired.

For the next two months, CSX managers followed Billingsley, looking to pressure him into any infraction of their rulebook. They found a pretext to fire him. Billingsley’s “crimes?” They said he stepped on a rail and threw a switch with one hand, neither of which was any conceivable threat to the communities residing near the tracks.

Billingsley has refused to be intimidated. He retained a lawyer, John Magnuson, and filed a claim with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. They are considering a “whistle-blower” suit through the federal courts.

In August 2017, just eight months after CSX inaugurated its “Precision Scheduled Railroading” — a term coined by its new CEO Hunter Harrison — a two-mile-long train, hauling dangerous chemicals, derailed in Hyndman, Pennsylvania.

Tank cars filled with liquid propane and molten sulfur ruptured and burst into flames, forcing the evacuation of over 1,000 people from the town and surrounding areas for days.

Harrison’s version of “precision” railroading is admired and imitated by profit-hungry rail bosses across North America.

Harrison died suddenly in December. The bosses at CSX and its shareholders had brought him over from Canadian Pacific Railway earlier in 2017 because of his record of “turning around” the profit rates at Illinois Central Railway and Canadian National Railway.

He led the bosses there in attacks on jobs, safety conditions, elimination of less profitable yards and train combinations that led to stockholders pocketing higher returns on their shares — 516 percent at Illinois Central, 1989-97; 353 percent at Canadian National, 1998-2009; and 319 percent at Canadian Pacific.

In addition to dangerously increasing train lengths and eliminating safer practices and rules, Harrison and CSX bosses closed major yards, including in Atlanta and Cumberland, Maryland, and they’ve laid off close to 10 percent of the railroad’s 28,000 workers. Nine cars derailed on another CSX train in Hyndman Dec. 29. Management at CSX — and their competitors across the continent — have made clear they will continue their productivity and profit drive, as they have done throughout the industry for decades.