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Legislative Update December 2013

BLET Lobbies for Two-Person Train Crew Bill

A horrific accident occurred last July when a runaway train plowed through the small town of Lac Megantic in Quebec, Canada, resulting in the destruction of many buildings in the downtown area and the death of approximately 50 people. That incident heightened awareness of the risk of single-person operations, prompting Representatives Michael Michaud (D-ME) and Chellie Pingree (D-ME) to introduce H.R. 3040, the Safe Freight Act, on August 2, 2013. The bill requires that “no freight train or light engine used in connection with the movement of freight may be operated unless it has a crew consisting of at least two individuals, one of whom is certified under regulations promulgated by the Federal Railroad Administration as a locomotive engineer pursuant to section 20135, and the other of whom is certified under regulations promulgated by the Federal Railroad Administration as a conductor pursuant to section 20163.”

 

Following the introduction of that bill, BLET National President Dennis R. Pierce and Vice President & National Legislative Representative John Tolman led a team of BLET lobbyists on Capitol Hill in a concerted effort to get the union’s message to the members of Congress. To follow up on the lobbying effort, President Pierce has asked BLET members, retirees, the BLET Auxiliary, and all concerned family members to contact their members of the U.S. House of Representatives to urge them to sign on to this vital piece of legislation.

To find your member of the U.S. House, go to www.house.gov and enter your zip code.

Metro-North Derailment Results in New Focus on Positive Train Control

On December 1, 2013, another tragic train incident occurred when a Metro North passenger train headed from Poughkeepsie, New York, to Grand Central Station in New York City derailed near the Spuyten-Duyvil Station in the Bronx, resulting in the deaths of four passengers and approximately 70 more sustaining injuries. Because the BLET does not currently represent locomotive engineers at Metro-North, President Dennis Pierce has refrained from commenting on the derailment or the ongoing investigation; however, in response to multiple requests, he did issue a statement in a BLET News Release dated December 5, 2013. In that statement, President Pierce extended the sympathies of the BLET to those who suffered losses as a result of the accident, gave an overview of the training provided to railroad engineers and the certification requirements, addressed the issue of fatigue, and reemphasized that the BLET has called for the implementation of Positive Train Control (PTC) technology for decades. He stated that the BLET will continue in its efforts to see that this technology is implemented as soon as possible. To see the entire news release, go to: http://www.ble-t.org/pr/news/newsflash.asp?id=5507.

On Wednesday, December 11, the Federal Railroad Administration issued an industry-wide safety advisory, ordering railroads to brief employees on the circumstances of the Metro-North derailment and train them on the importance of speed limits. The directive also says railroads should remind workers about the importance of communication between crew members, including during long periods of inactivity.

A number of rail experts have concluded that Positive Train Control would not have allowed the Metro North train to exceed the speed limit, but would have slowed and eventually stopped the train it if the engineer became unresponsive. Congress in 2008 ordered the nation’s railroads to adopt PTC by December 2015. The Metro North incident has led to calls for the government to stick to the 2015 deadline. In a letter last week to Sen. John Rockefeller (D-WV), Chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) wrote: “In just the last ten years, the NTSB has completed 26 investigations of train accidents in the United States that could have been prevented by PTC. These accidents claimed 65 lives and injured more than 1,000 people.”

Following the December 1 incident, Metro North has implemented a number of new safety measures, including the installation of a new track circuit that should automatically trigger brakes on any train that approaches the tight curve at the site of the derailment at an unsafe speed.

California High Speed Rail Project Moving Forward

In early December, following an unfavorable court ruling by a Sacramento judge, media reports indicated that the California High Speed Rail (HSR) project is doomed. The judge ruled that California High Speed Rail Authority cannot utilize State Bond money until the Authority puts together a fully funded business plan. However, because the ruling did not have a temporary restraining order, the Authority will continue moving forward with the allocated $3.4 billion in Federal money and still plans to break ground next year. That money has to used by the end of 2017.

The Authority is considering an appeal of the judge’s decision and is working with the Governor’s office and the State Department of Transportation. The judge wanted a remedy for the failure of the November 11 finance plan to meet the standards set forth in Proposition 1A, the 2008 measure for a $9.9 billion bond issue to get California’s HSR project going, so he ordered the Authority to redo the plan. The Authority cannot access the State bonds until they resubmit the plan.

California’s HSR project is the largest single public works project in the history of the nation and will no doubt face many more challenges in the years ahead, but contrary to recent media reports, it is not dead and will move forward utilizing the Federal funding.

Please be sure to ask your legislators to support full funding for high speed rail and Amtrak for 2014 and beyond!

Coal Export Facility to Open in Washington State

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen recently announced its support of the building of a coal export facility in Washington State that is expected to create many well-paying union jobs during its construction and more than 100 permanent jobs after its completion, including a substantial number of new rail jobs.

Eight trains per day will deliver coal to the terminal from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming. The facility is expected to begin operations in 2015 and will export coal to emerging markets in Asia and beyond. To see the complete BLET Newsflash, with a link to President Pierce’s letter of support, go to http://www.ble-t.org/pr/news/newsflash.asp?id=5503.

GA-46000 Lifetime maximum adjusted for 2014

As reported in a December 5 newsflash issued by the BLET National Division, the lifetime maximum benefit for the Railroad Employees National Early Retirement Major Medical Benefit (also known as ERMA or GA-46000) Plan will increase from $136,200 to $141,400 on January 1, 2014. 
At the end of 2001, Labor and Management agreed on various procedures to administer the annual changes in the amount of the lifetime maximum benefit under the ERMA plan. In conjunction with the formula established in 2001, a new lifetime maximum was calculated for 2014 by utilizing the October 2013 consumer price index (CPI) data for Hospital and Related Services and Physician Services. 
Additionally, for individuals who have reached the lifetime maximum, the incremental maximum available is applied to eligible expenses submitted for dates of service on or after the effective date of the new maximum. For 2014, this amount will be $5,200. This change will apply to all railroads and crafts participating in ERMA.

Railroad Retirement Benefits to Increase in 2014

 

The following is from Railroad Retirement Board Press Release 13-11, http://www.rrb.gov/opa/pr/pr1311.asp:

Most railroad retirement annuities, like social security benefits, are scheduled to increase in January 2014 on the basis of the rise in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) from the third quarter of 2012 to the corresponding period of the current year.

Cost-of-living increases are calculated in both the tier I and tier II benefits included in a railroad retirement annuity. Tier I benefits, like social security benefits, will increase by 1.5 percent, which is the percentage of the CPI rise. Tier II benefits will increase by 0.5 percent, which is 32.5 percent of the CPI rise. The vested dual benefit payments and supplemental annuities also paid by the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) are not adjusted for the CPI rise.

In January 2014, the average regular railroad retirement employee annuity will increase $29 a month to $2,459 and the average of combined benefits for an employee and spouse will increase $41 a month to $3,540. For those aged widow(er)s eligible for an increase, the average annuity will increase $17 a month to $1,279. However, widow(er)s whose annuities are being paid under the Railroad Retirement and Survivors’ Improvement Act of 2001 will not receive annual cost-of-living adjustments until their annuity amount is exceeded by the amount that would have been paid under prior law, counting all interim cost-of-living increases otherwise payable.  Almost 37 percent of the widow(er)s on the RRB’s rolls are being paid under the 2001 law.

If a railroad retirement or survivor annuitant also receives a social security or other government benefit, such as a public service pension, the increased tier I benefit is reduced by the increased government benefit. However, tier II cost-of-living increases are not reduced by increases in other government benefits. If a widow(er) whose annuity is being paid under the 2001 law is also entitled to an increased government benefit, her or his railroad retirement survivor annuity may decrease.

However, the total amount of the combined railroad retirement widow(er)’s annuity and other government benefits will not be less than the total payable before the cost-of-living increase and before any increase in Medicare premium deductions. In late December the RRB will mail notices to all annuitants providing a breakdown of the annuity rates payable to them in January 2014.

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