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Legislative Update April 2009

Increased Rail Fatalities

 

            Recently, Jo Strang, the Associate Administrator for the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) issued a call for help due to the rise in rail fatalities during 2008, which has continued into 2009.  The number of employee on-duty fatalities in 2008 reached an alarming 19.  That number does not include other than train accidents or highway-rail grade crossing fatalities.  If trends continue as they have, 2009 is headed to surpass 2008 in the number of fatalities.  Already in the first quarter of 2009, there have been 7 employee on-duty fatalities.

            The FRA is asking rail union members to be on constant alert for the risk and dangers associated with working in the rail industry.  They also ask that compliance with all operating rules and Federal regulations be the first priority at work.  If an employee feels that someone is putting themselves or other workers in danger because of unsafe work practices, then the FRA urges employees to report such dangers through the railroads’ empowerment policies or through good faith challenges afforded to rail workers by regulation.

            The FRA believes that we all must work together to change cultures that may exist that keeps employees from reporting unsafe practices for fear of losing their jobs.  Progress had been made in the past to reduce the number of railroad related fatalities, but after all, it is up to every employee to make sure he/she comes home safe and in one piece.  If someone is doing something that could prevent that from happening, then change needs to occur.

STAY SAFE OUT THERE!

To read the entire letter from Ms. Strang, go to FRA Calls for Help

Standardized Signals

            Recently, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued its findings regarding a 2007 collision between a Norfolk Southern train and an Amtrak train which occurred near Chicago.  The recommendation was issued to address a long-standing problem with non-standardized signals between railroads and territories, which contributed to the misinterpretation of a signal by the Amtrak crew involved in the accident, and the failure to resolve the miscalled signal prior to the accident.  The NTSB recommended that the FRA “establish uniform signal aspects that railroads must use to authorize a train to enter an occupied block, and prohibit the use of these aspects for any other signal indication.”  It also recommended that the FRA “study the different signal systems for trains, identify ways to communicate more uniformly the meaning of signal aspects across all railroad territories, and require the railroads to implement as many uniform signal meanings as possible.”

The Board determined that if Positive Train Control (PTC) had been in use, the accident would have been prevented by stopping the train when it exceeded restricted speed.  The Rail Safety Act passed in January mandates the implementation of PTC by all railroads before 2014.  The recommendation has been made that all railroads, Amtrak, AAR, ASLRRA, the BLET and UTU use the circumstances of this accident to re-emphasize during training to communicate any disagreement on a signal call immediately and if needed, to take action to ensure the train is operated safely.

Railroad Antitrust Enforcement Act of 2009

The BLET announced that it is opposing the Railroad Antitrust Enforcement Act of 2009 (H. R. 233/S. 146).  National President Ed Rodzwicz wrote the House and Senate committees handling the issue saying in part, “While carriers, labor and shippers have not been uniformly satisfied with all processes and decisions of the STB, we believe that this oversight has served its public purpose well, as evidenced by the industry’s renaissance over the past decade.”  He goes on to say. “A short-term gain for some shippers could result in crippling the industry just as the nation’s dependence on railroads becomes critical.”  “To the extent the Congress believes that the ability of STB to vigorously oversee the railroad industry should be strengthened, we strongly urge you to sit down with the railroads and the shippers and work out the necessary reforms. The BLET supports such a plan of action because it would address legitimate grievances shippers may have without jeopardizing the stability of the industry. Unfortunately, the Act would have the opposite effect. Under these circumstances, we have no option but to oppose passage.”

To read BLET National President Rodzwicz’s letter click here.

Not New News to Us!  – GAO FINDS COMMUTER RAIL LINES BEAR BRUNT OF LIABILITY From the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

A recent study by the Government Accounting Office (GAO) shows that commuter rail lines bear most of the liability for accidents that occur on tracks shared with freight railroads.  I guess it is a good thing that the government now has a report indicating this fact, but it is nothing new.  During Amtrak’s annual struggles to stay afloat under the Bush administration’s attempts to kill the rail corporation, it was said over and over that some financial difficulties existed because of freight rails insistence that Amtrak be responsible for every accident – even when it was the result of track failure due to neglect by the owning railroad.

According to GAO, one-third of commuter rail indemnity agreements that GAO examined require public commuter rail authorities to accept all responsibility for accidents regardless of fault, including accidents resulting from the gross negligence or reckless or willful misconduct on the part of another railroad, and another one-third of the agreements are silent on the matter. The report also noted that several courts of law and the Surface Transportation Board have held that this practice is contrary to the public interest. Further, GAO stated that, since most commuter rail lines receive some sort of government subsidy, the indemnity agreement could make taxpayers liable for the damages.

“The report confirms that the unequal bargaining powers of local, public transit authorities and multinational, private freight rail companies in part influence liability negotiations, and often result in commuter railroads assuming most of the financial risks for serving the public,” said Congressman Oberstar (D-MN), Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “In fact, some of these agreements make no exception for cases of gross negligence or willful misconduct. This is an unacceptable practice.”

The GAO report acknowledges the absence of a national, industry-wide standard for freight rail liability.  With the expansion of both freight rail and commuter rail, Congress must ensure that taxpayers are not unnecessarily exposed to liability because of the bullying tactics of the freight railroads in dealing with multiple agencies.

Congressman Oberstar commended the GAO for the report and pledged to use the information regarding commuter rail indemnity agreements as the Committee further examines the issue.

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