By Kathleen Bisbikis, National Second Vice President, National Legislative Representative, BLET Auxiliary

Below are some of the most recent news items that affect all of us. Please feel free to share these with your local auxiliary. If you have information you would like to share with me for future updates, please send it to me at bletauxilliarylr@gmail.com.

High Speed Rail

A transformational moment in U.S. history took place on January 6, 2015. On that date, the ground was officially broken on the nation’s first-ever high speed rail system. The ceremony took place in Fresno, California, at the location which will serve as the future train station that will link high speed rail travelers from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It is estimated that it will take approximately five years to complete the Central Valley portion of the bullet train and a decade to finish all of the proposed sections across California. At the dedication ceremony, California Governor Jerry Brown said, “The high-speed rail links us from the past to the future, from the south to the north.”

The high speed rail project is estimated to bring approximately 66,000 new jobs to California annually over the course of its construction. The estimated cost of completion of the high speed rail system is 68 billion dollars. After completion, a traveler will be able to enjoy a high speed rail experience going from San Francisco to Los Angeles in just three hours at a range of 200 to 220 mph.

Acting FRA administrator named

Sarah Feinberg has been named acting FRA Administrator replacing Joseph Szabo who stepped down on January 1, 2015. Feinberg was appointed by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Fox, who she served as Chief of Staff. Feinberg is only the second woman to lead the agency since it began in 1966. She joined the Department of Transportation in 2013 after the deadly derailment and explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx stated in a press release: “Sarah has the right mix of experience and skills to adeptly lead the FRA as it continues its important work to ensure the safe, reliable, and efficient movement of people and goods.”

Rail Unions to Bargain Together

In a joint negotiating effort, the BLET and SMART-TD rail unions, as well as four other rail workers unions, have joined together to work as a team for the next collective bargaining agreement talks. In a press release dated December 17, 2014, BLET President Dennis R. Pierce stated, “Today we build on the successes of joint bargaining during the past two national rounds…. Now more than ever before it is imperative that the unions representing railroad operating crafts sit side-by-side at the national table, and I am pleased that we have been able to accomplish that.”

SEPTA Update:

In the November update, we reported that a tentative agreement had been reached between Local 71 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and SEPTA, the commuter rail system. The tentative agreement included a pay increase of 13.32 percent for engineers. However, at the time, SEPTA refused to negotiate with the union about the critical safety concerns that remain unresolved. In the BLET Newsflash dated November 24, 2014, BLET Vice President Steve Bruno stated: “This is no way to run a railroad. Safety has to come first, but SEPTA is more interested in cutting payroll costs. They haven’t lived up to the promises they made when they got the first waiver; there’s no reason to give them a second one.” Added Bruno, “We’ve seen some terrible accidents due to sleep deprivation on other railroads. We don’t need that to happen here.”

In a letter to the FRA, BLET National President Dennis Pierce stated that since receiving a safety waiver in October 2012, SEPTA has systematically reduced “the number of locomotive engineer assignments while simultaneously increasing the number of trains and route miles in the public schedule.”

The union has asked the Federal Rail Administration to reject SEPTA’s waiver from safety rules and asked that a public hearing be held. The waiver decreases the amount of rest time for engineers, some of whom are already working 14-hour days, six days a week. A hearing has been scheduled for February 10 in Pennsylvania so that the panel members can listen to both engineers and passengers.