Legislative Update February 2010

A Call for Commitment to Safety for 2010

 

As reported in a January 29 newsflash from the BLET National, the FRA is urging all rail workers to commit to increasing safety awareness for 2010 following last year’s report of 16 on-the-job fatalities in the rail industry. BLET Division 266 members Andrew R. Reed and Josh Osborn, both just 27 years old were among those killed in 2009. They were working in the cab together for the Iowa, Chicago & Eastern Railroad (IC&E) when their train hit a misaligned switch nearBettendorf, Illinois, last July.

FRA Administrator Josepth Szabo, a former railroader and union member, stated in a January 26, 2009, letter:  “This tragic toll is more than just a number. It represents human lives; a father not there to walk his daughter down the aisle, a mother not there for her son’s first day of school, an employee nearing retirement who did not live to enjoy the fruits of his labor.”

In his letter, Szabo encourages all rail workers to avoid distractions and maintain complete situational awareness while on duty. He goes on to state that company managers who pressure workers to rush through jobs and skip rule compliance should be immediately reported to the FRA. He also said that the FRA will work diligently to
ensure that the focus on rules compliance is consistent within each carrier’s organization.

Rep. Oberstar’s Aggressive Transportation Agenda

Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-MN), Chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has long been a friend to members of rail unions. On January 11, Rep. Oberstar issued a news release stating that, in his first three years at the helm, the committee has surpassed the 2003-2005 productivity levels. He stated that our national transportation systems have been neglected and, in addition to lack of maintenance to our roads and bridges and upgrades to locks and dams, investments in new technologies like high speed rail have been delayed. Rep. Oberstar is determined to address these issues with an aggressive legislative schedule.

Oversight of the Recovery Act has been and will continue to be a high priority for the T&I Committee. Through the 110th Congress, and now midway through the 111th Congress, the committee has held a total of 257 hearings in just three years, compared to 143 in the comparable three-year period of the 108th and 109th Congresses.

NTSB Recommends Installation of Cameras in Locomotive Cabs

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) publicly concluded its investigation of the September 2008 collision between Metrolink and Union Pacific Railroad trains in Chatsworth, California. The NTSB has stated that this tragic accident was caused by the Metrolink engineer, who was text-messaging on a wireless device while operating the train, and failed to respond to a red signal. As a result of those findings, the NTSB recommends that the FRA:

  • require the installation of inward- and outward-facing audio and image recorders in all locomotive cabs and cab car operating compartments to verify that train crews abide by wireless device rules and safety procedures; and
  • require railroads to regularly review in-cab audio and image recordings for verification purposes.

The NTSB also cited the lack of a positive train control system (PTC) as a contributing factor, stating that a PTC system would have stopped the Metrolink train short of the red signal and prevented the accident.

In a prepared statement, the BLET charged that the installation of inward facing cameras in locomotive cabs is unnecessary and wasteful. BLET officials pointed out that, as Positive Train Control (PTC) technology is installed over the next few years, “there will be no advantage whatsoever for either audio or video recording of in-cab activities because the fail-safe nature of PTC technology will prevent collisions of the type that served as the basis for the NTSB recommendation.”

The BLET’s statement goes on to say that current FRA regulations and railroad operating procedures already provide for extensive recording of locomotive and signal data, and radio conversations are routinely recorded. Locomotive operation is monitored in such detail by today’s event recorders that inward-facing video cameras will provide no additional information of use in accident investigations.

While expressing his deep sympathy for those whose friends and family were amongst the 25 killed and more than 100 injured in the Chatsworth accident, BLET National President Paul Sorrow stated that: “The fact of the matter is that theNTSB’s recommendation, if implemented at the time, would not have prevented this tragedy. The speedy installation of Positive Train Control technology should be the focus here, not invasive, inward-facing video cameras inside of locomotive cabs. Safety is the most important responsibility of all locomotive engineers, and while our organization fully supports technology that makes the workplace safer for our members and the traveling public, we oppose any measure that needlessly invades their privacy without providing substantive safety improvements.”

The NTSB had recommended that Metrolink install PTC following a 2002 accident in Placentia, California; however that recommendation was ignored by Metrolink.

Positive Train Control – FRA Final Rule

On January 15, the Federal Railroad Administration published its final rule regarding Positive Train Control (PTC) systems. The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA08) mandated that freight, intercity passenger, and commuter rail routes have operable PTC in place no later than December 31, 2015. Railroads must submit their final PTC plans to the FRA by April 16, 2010. The law mandates PTC on track over which passenger trains travel, as well as track on which freight trains containing highly toxic cargo are moved.

The technology is intended to help prevent train-to-train collisions and/or derailments caused by excessive speed, accidents caused by human error or misaligned switches, and to protect roadway workers from harm. The control systems would utilize a mix of onboard devices, track signaling, and distant traffic dispatch technology.

According to the FRA, the final rule is the result of over a decade of work by the FRA, the BLET and other unions, as well as other stakeholders, carried out in partnership through the Railroad Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC). In 1990, the National Transportation Safety Board placed positive train control on its “Most Wanted List” of safety improvements.

The railroads have concerns about the cost of PTC implementation; however, the FRA cost benefit analyses clearly shows it to be a benefit. The FRA estimates it will cost the railroads a total of about $5.5 billion to install PTC on 69,000 miles of track, including components placed onboard 30,000 rail vehicles. Additionally, railroads will need to spend about $820 million per year to maintain and refurbish the systems. The recently passed FY 2010 Budget allocates $50 million for positive train control technology.

A copy of the Final Rule is available for download from the BLET website:
http://www.ble-t.org/pr/pdf/PTCfinalrule0110.pdf

FRA Final Rule Revises Locomotive Engineer Certification Requirements

The Federal Railroad Administration issued its final rule on December 31, 2009, addressing miscellaneous revisions to 49 CFR Part 240. The rule will take effect on February 22, 2010.

BLET National President Paul Sorrow stated: “The amendments in this final rule represent another incremental improvement in our certification rules. The changes are an improvement in ensuring due process for our members. Overall these changes are a positive step for our membership by providing clearer and more reasonable protections from abusive carriers.”

Highlights of the revisions include the following:

  • FRA has amended § 240.107 to expressly prohibit the practice of reclassifying any type of engineer’s certification to a more restrictive class or certificate while the certification is otherwise valid.
  • FRA has amended §240.127 and § 240.129 to require that each railroad identify the potential actions it may take in the event that a person fails a skills performance test or that the railroad finds deficiencies with an engineer’s performance during an operational monitoring observation or unannounced ride. FRA also requires that each railroad describe the scoring systems it uses to determine the locomotive engineers skills during an operational monitoring observation or a performance and unannounced tests.
  • FRA has amended § 240.307 to reinforce that a revocation may only occur for reasons specified in the regulation, after at least one railroad believed that the regulations allowed it to revoke certification when it believed the engineer no longer met the qualification requirements of Part 240, even for incidents not involving a major infraction. One commenter argued, for example, that a locomotive engineer could have his certification revoked for reasons such as a violation of Emergency Order 26 (the cell phone ban).

In the final rule, the FRA indicated that it expects to review Part 240 and possibly make additional revisions to the certification rules as a result of the conductor certification Railroad Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC) process.

Excise Tax on Health Care Plans

On January 13, House and Senate negotiators agreed to significant changes to the tax on high-dollar insurance plans in the health care bill. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has stated that the new bill would:

  • Raise the threshold for plans subject to the excise tax, which would begin in 2013, from $23,000 to $24,000 for families, and from $8,500 to $8,900 for individuals;
  • No longer include dental and vision insurance toward the excise tax beginning in 2015;
  • Adjust the thresholds of the plans upward for older and female beneficiaries, who usually have more expensive health care costs;
  • Tag the rates for the thresholds to the Consumer Price Index, plus one percent annually;
  • Exempt all health plans for state and local government employees, as well as all plans negotiated through collective bargaining, from the excise tax until 2018;
  • Allow collectively bargained health plans to access the new health insurance exchanges in 2017. Those plans had been excluded from the exchanges in earlier versions of the bill;

The changes will cost the overall bill $60 billion, meaning the tax will raise $90 billion in revenue, rather than $150 billion as originally planned.

Trumka called the agreement a “milestone” for organized labor, but said the health care fight is not over. He did say that the AFL-CIO will endorse the Democrats’ health care reform effort, “subject to the final bill.”

High Speed Rail

President Obama and Vice President Biden announced on January 28 that the U.S. Department of Transportation is awarding $8 billion to states across the country to develop America’s first nationwide program of high-speed intercity passenger rail service.  The majority of these dollars, funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, will be used to develop new, large-scale high-speed rail programs. Thirteen rail corridors in 31 states will receive the funds, with Florida,California, and Illinois receiving the largest sums. Florida will receive up to $1.25 billion to develop a corridor between Tampa and Orlando, with trains running up to 168 mph; Illinois was awarded $1.1 billion to improve a rail line between Chicago and St. Louis so that trains can travel up to 110 mph; and California will receive up to $2.25 billion for its project to connect Los Angeles to San Francisco and points in between, with trains running up to 200 mph. Over $55 billion in project proposals were submitted for this initial $8 billion in funds. For a complete list of awards, go to:

http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/rss_viewer/hsr_awards_summary_public.pdf.

As pointed out by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, the president’s vision on high-speed rail will create good jobs in our country, reinvigorate our manufacturing base, reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, and help create livable communities.

The $8 billion award is just a start. The Administration’s long-term plan released last April also includes $1 billion a year for five years in the federal budget as a down payment to jump-start the program, and Congress for this year has approved another $2.5 billion, yet to be awarded.

Following the January 28 announcement, Teamsters General President Hoffa announced that he, along with Freddie Simpson, President of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, and BLET President Paul Sorrow look forward to continuing to work with the Obama administration to preserve rail jobs and expand work opportunities for members of the Teamster Rail Conference.