H.R. 5483 – Railroad Retirement Disability Earnings Act
In the waning hours of the 109th Congress, the Senate passed H.R. 5483 by voice vote on December 9, 2006. President Bush signed the bill into law on January 12th. The bill allows those who have retired on disability will be allowed to earn up to $700 per month without affecting their status, up from $400, with the maximum adjusted for inflation every year. This is an increase from the $400 maximum allowed in the past, and brings those under Railroad Retirement Disability on the same footing as those under Social Security Disability.
Extension of Popular Tax Credits
As reported last month, also in the waning days of the 109th Congress, Senate Republicans voted to extend the most popular tax cuts among voters rather than allow Democratic leadership to take credit for the extensions. Among those approved include credits for: higher education expense, state sales tax in states with no income tax, classroom expenses for teachers, employer tax credits, and research and development tax credits.
Medicare Reimbursement Rates
At the last minute, the Senate also removed the provision that would have cut doctor fee reimbursement rates, avoiding serious problems in health care for seniors. Doctors had promised to refuse accepting new Medicare patients if the already low rates were cut further, which would have caused serious problems in health care for seniors.
The new 110th Congress convened on January 4, 2007, and among the statements made by the leadership, both sides of the aisle stated that because the margin of control is so narrow, all must work together in a bi-partisan manner to get things done. The new leadership has promised a 5-day work week (what a concept), and a renewed sense of doing what is best for our country. Following the swearing in ceremony in the Senate, the Democratic leadership put substantive Campaign Finance and Ethics Reform as number one on the Top 10 list, followed by increasing the minimum wage; decreasing the cost of Medicare Prescription Drug Coverage; full implementation of the recommendations of the 9/11 commission; funding for stem cell research; measures to further energy independence and addressing global warming; making college more affordable for middle-class Americans by increasing Pell Grants, decreasing student loan interest rates, and extending tuition tax breaks; rebuilding the military; immigration reform; and reinstating the “Pay as You Go Rules” to decrease the debt and our dependence on foreign investors who hold too large of a percentage of our debt. The Republicans advised they are still meeting to decide what their top 10 agenda will be, and that it should be forthcoming in the next few weeks. All we can do is hope that the rhetoric will stop and some actual progress will be made to move our country forward, not just for the few, but for all Americans. Based on some comments from the new minority, hope for a truly bi-partisan Congress is already waning.
As a footnote, the 9 remaining appropriations bills for Fiscal Year 2007, which began October 1, 2006, will need to be addressed before the February 15th deadline on the current Continuing Resolution. If not, another Continuing Resolution will have to be issued, which could put an end to this faux honeymoon.
Family Medical Leave Act
In December of 2005, a District Court in Chicago ruled that Carriers cannot force employees to substitute paid vacation and personal leave or unpaid leave when collective bargaining agreements are in place that give employees, not the Carriers, the right to decide when to use their paid leave. The Rail Carriers are appealing that decision, and oral arguments were scheduled before the 7th Circuit Court on January 3, 2007. As soon as a ruling is handed down, we will let you know.
- 1516, the long-term funding bill for Amtrak died with the 109th Congress. However, all is not lost. With the change in the leadership, we now have supporters in key positions, and a leadership who will allow our bills to come to the floor for votes. We will keep you posted as bills are filed in the new 110th Congress.
On a positive note, the Transportation Communication Workers Union (TCU) reached an agreement with Amtrak to prevent outsourcing reservations work. In addition, it has been reported that the new Amtrak President, Alexander Kummant has indicated that Amtrak was backing away from some of the ideas that had upset Amtrak supporters, including separating out the Northeast corridor and discontinuing the long-distance network. He also appeared to rule out plans to privatize major parts of Amtrak’s unionized workforce, but believes instead that it would make better sense to expand passenger service with union jobs, outsourcing only peripheral functions, such a tree-trimming. Democrats have suggested that one of their goals would be to finance Amtrak in the same manner that the federal government finances highways, offering matching funds to states, and consolidating purchases of new equipment. Proposals such as these overwhelmingly passed the Senate last year, but the House leadership would not bring the matter up for a vote. Senator Frank Lautenburg (D-NJ) is now in charge of the Senate’s rail subcommittee and has indicated he will offer a measure similar to last years.
In a long line of studies conducted over the years, the FRA released a report at the end of November providing strong, scientific rationale for evaluating railroad employee work schedules to address worker fatigue. Surprisingly (not!), they found a strong statistical correlation between the crew’s estimated level of alertness and the likelihood that they would be involved in an accident caused by human factors. What they don’t say is that because of the conscientiousness of BLET members there are not more accidents. They wear down their employees to the point that it is a miracle there are not numerous accidents every day. If the Carriers would put into place a few simple measures, fatigue could be cut significantly. Improving accuracy of train line-up information, extending calling times for reporting for duty, and an end to limbo time are easy ways to allow crews to be adequately rested.
Finally on December 15th, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) under the Department of Homeland Security has proposed new federal guidelines for the transport of hazardous materials, giving the TSA authority to inspect rail facilities, establish protocols for the handoff of toxic chemicals to rail cars, and require secure custody changes of rail cars in “high-threat” urban areas. While some Congressional leaders believe the proposed rule-making will enhance the security of our nation’s rail system, critics are not convinced that enough of the security gaps plaguing the current hazmat and passenger transit system will be addressed. The port security bill, recently signed into law, contained $4.5 billion in funding authorizations for rail and mass transit security, but if you remember, that provision was removed in conference committee.
Currently, the Department of Homeland Security had a program of working with chemical plants and transporters of hazmat on a voluntary compliance basis. It does not take a rocket scientist to know that never works when corporations are given a choice between safety and security, or their bottom line.
Remote Control Operations
Remote Control claimed another life in December. CSX Carman Ronald Foster was killed by a car being shoved with a Remote Controlled Locomotive as he crossed the tracks in Manlius, New York. This issue is not dead, and Resolutions continue to be passed. Most recent among them is a resolution passed in Hermiston, Oregon, asking the FRA to prohibit the use of RCOs within the town limit. The Union Pacific plans to operate RCOs on the mainline between Hermiston and Umatilla, approximately a 15 mile route. Also in the works is a Resolution in Page County, Virginia requesting the FRA to issue regulations. The Virginia initiative is spearheaded by MAL Diane Shifflett and her husband, Danny. Currently, there are 62 cities and counties that have passed resolutions concerning remote control operations, but we need to continue to oppose the ever increasing proliferation of technology that is not being implemented in a safe manner by the Carriers, nor receiving the proper oversight and regulation by the government agency charged with its safe operation.
Waiver of Compliance for Safety Requirements on Border Trains
Back in 2004, Union Pacific Railroad requested that the FRA issue a waiver of compliance to allow trains that cross the border from Mexico to be allowed to perform the 1,000 mile inspection in Mexico before crossing. The FRA denied their request for a number of reasons, including their lack of jurisdiction and oversight authority in Mexico. The UP has once again petitioned the FRA to issue a waiver to allow the Kansas City Southern de Mexico or its contractor to perform the tests and inspections at the Nuevo Laredo/Sanchez Yards. The petition is currently in the comment period, following which it will be acted upon. What we perceive as one of the biggest problems is that it would allow trains to travel from Mexico up to 1500 miles into the interior of the United States without an inspection done by qualified UP personnel or FRA oversight in the United States. Potentially, it could open the door to Mexican crews making the transit. Another consideration when it comes to Nuevo Laredo is the current battleground between warring drug cartels. FRA personnel may not wish to perform oversight or inspection functions for fear of their lives. We will keep you posted as events develop.
- 184.The Surface Transportation and Rail Security Act of 2007
Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI) introduced S. 184 on January 4, 2007. The bill is an updated version of Rail Security Act of 2005, and includes provisions contained in the SAFE Port Act, passed by the Senate during the 109th Congress. Major provisions pertaining to railroads include: requiring the TSA to conduct a railroad sector risk assessment and submit prioritized recommendations for improving rail security; provide grants through TSA to Amtrak, freight railroads and others to upgrade security across the entire freight and intercity passenger railroad system; providing funding through the DOT to upgrade Amtrak tunnels in D.C. and the northeast corridor; create a DHS rail security research and development program and encourage the deployment of rail car tracking equipment for hazmat shipments; authorize studies to improve passenger rail security screening and immigration processing along the northern border; require railroads to create a railroad worker security-training program; provide whistle blower protections for reporting security concerns; require railroads to create mitigation plans for high hazard materials; require TSA and DOT to clarify respective roles for rail security (this has been ongoing since 9/11); and require DHS to develop a program to encourage equipping of rail cars transporting high hazard materials. A total of 13 Senators have signed on as original co-sponsors. More will be reported on this bill in the Spring issue of the newsletter.