Railroad Union, Lawmakers Decry Camp Cars Norfolk Southern, one of the nation's biggest railroads, still houses some workers in so-called "camp cars," or converted sleeper cars, instead of motels. The worker's union has condemned the living conditions; Congress is also considering a ban.
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Railroad Union, Lawmakers Decry Camp Cars

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Railroad Union, Lawmakers Decry Camp Cars

Railroad Union, Lawmakers Decry Camp Cars

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's talk about housing of a different kind.

On Wednesdays, we look at the workplace. And today, we go to West Virginia to see where some railroad workers call home.

The people who maintain railroad tracks often do their jobs in isolated parts of the country. And one of the nation's biggest railroads, Norfolk Southern, still houses some workers in so called camp cars. Those are converted sleeper cars, instead of motels. They live on the rails. The worker's union has condemned the living conditions and Congress is considering a ban.

Scott Finn of West Virginia Public Broadcasting reports.

(Soundbite of machine)

Mr. SCOTT FINN (Reporter, West Virginia Public Broadcasting): Deep in the Appalachian mountain, workers with Norfolk Southern replace the wooden ties on the station of railroad near to Kentucky, Virginia border. This group was in a 10-hour day in subzero cold. Home for most of these guys is far away, and the nearest motel that's big enough for the entire crew is a two-hour drive over winding roads. So instead, they head to their 10 camp cars parked on a railroad spur.

These cars are like campers on rails. Each worker gets a bunk, and for every two workers, there's shower and toilet. James Flannigan(ph) says he is happy with his setup.

Mr. JAMES FLANNIGAN (Norfolk Southern Railroad Worker): I've got my storage up here, and all this. And here I put my clothes, I mean, it's just like home. And it's good.

(Soundbite of people chatting)

Mr. FINN: In the kitchen car, the cooks are making green bean casserole, ham and cheesy biscuits.

After dinner, Mitchell Copley(ph) and Rick Johnson(ph) sits in one of the camp cars watching the movie "Braveheart" on satellite TV. They talk abut the old days when they slept in uninsulated box cars with propane stoves and bunk beds.

Unidentified Man #1: Bunk beds, top-bottom. Guys on top got comfortable, guys on the bottom froze.

Unidentified Man #2: The man on top got drunk, you got to wet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #2: I've seen it happen.

Mr. FINN: These cars have just been renovated. But union officials say not all 500 maintenance workers stay in cars this nice.

Mr. DANNY GATES (Teamsters Union): The very first furnace the guy opened up rats ran out of it.

Mr. FINN: Danny Gates of the Teamsters Union wants to outlaw camp cars. In October, the House of Representatives passed a railroad safety bill that would do just that. Other major railroads have eliminated camp cars. Gates says he can't understand why Norfolk Southern, also known as NS, refuses to go along.

Mr. GATES: So NS is kind of standing out in the cold out here and they're just being defiant on this issue.

(Soundbite of chatting)

Mr. FINN: Back in the camp cars and under the watchful eyes of his bosses, worker James Flannigan says he prefers things the way they are.

Mr. FLANNIGAN: I don't know why Congress has got anything to with it. It should be the railroads men's decision - it should be. I mean, they are the one's who lives here, Congress don't live here.

Mr. FINN: For some of these old-timers, this camp car debate isn't about safety or convenience. Norfolk Southern supervisor Chris Warren says it's about a sense of brotherhood.

Mr. CHRIS WARREN (Supervisor, Norfolk Southern): And everybody's right here, look after each other as if you put (unintelligible) in a different environment around motels and stuff for you that lose track of somebody. And it's a little more. It's a little deeper than just the convenience. It means a lot to some of these guys, you know?

Mr. FINN: The Senate is now considering the railroad safety bill. Both sides agree it's not about the money. It's about the safety of the workers who keep the nation's railroad safe.

For NPR News, I'm Scott Finn in Charleston, West Virginia.

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