Amtrak Reauthorization

After a full decade of inadequate funding for our nation’s passenger rail system, HR. 6003, the Amtrak Reauthorization Bill, passed the House 311-104 on June 11. President Bush has promised to veto the bill, which would authorize more than $14 billion for Amtrak over five years. This funding will serve to make long overdue improvements in Amtrak’s’ infrastructure and to expand the railroad, as well as meet its backpay obligations to Amtrak employees who worked for eight years without a contract.

The National Association of Rail Passengers has stated that repairing Amtrak’s rail cars should be a priority because it is the fastest way to add capacity in order to handle the large number of passengers flocking to Amtrak’s system in conjunction with the recent rise in gas prices. During the past seven months, ridership has jumped 11 percent. Most of the increased ridership is in the light rail and commuter rail systems.

Additional language in H.R. 6003 that proposes to allow for the private sector to enter into high speed rail service will be a major area of disagreement and discussion when the legislation goes to conference. The Senate already passed similar legislation with funding of $11.4 billion, but without reference to private high speed rail service. Rail labor has been clear regarding their concerns on the private sector language. Hopefully, the final legislation will be a catalyst to produce a stronger rail passenger service in the 21st century. Stay tuned for further updates as this moves through the legislative process.

Hearing on Impact of Climate Change on Transportation

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing on June 24 entitled, “Climate Change Impacts on the Transportation Sector.”  Witnesses discussed the effects of climate change on both surface transportation and aviation, focusing on the projected increases in freight and passenger traffic in each mode of transportation.

Edward Hamberger, President & CEO of the Association of American Railroads testified before the committee, addressing climate change as it relates to the rail industry. He stressed that moving more freight by rail is in the public interest, stating: “Greater use of rail transportation offers a simple, cost-effective, and immediate way to meaningfully reduce greenhouse gas emissions without potentially harming the economy.”

UP Blocks Track Inspectors from Safety Training

Union Pacific Railroad recently demonstrated yet another example of disregard for the safety and well being of its employees when it denied permission for several of its track inspectors in the Kansas City area to attend a union-sponsored track safety class conducted by the Federal Railroad Administration and being offered to Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employee Division (BMWED)-represented track inspectors. A UP official contacted the safety director for the BMWED stating that he took exception to the training.

Between 2004 and 2007, UP had 3,514 reportable train accidents, including 1,214 that were attributed to track-related defects. During that same period, 21 UP employees were killed on duty, five of whom were members represented by BMWED.

Rick Inclima, BMWED Director of Safety, stated: “Given these safety statistics, BMWED is appalled by the UP’s action to block train inspectors from attending this program. The public and our nation’s lawmakers should also be appalled.”

Well, we are appalled, but not surprised really.

STB Meeting Scheduled on Railroads’ Common Carrier Obligation & Hazmat

The Surface Transportation Board (STB) will hold a public hearing on July 16 to examine issues related to the railroads’ common carrier obligation (the duty of railroads to provide transportation or service on reasonable request) regarding transportation of hazardous materials (hazmat). This hearing will provide a forum for detailed discussion of issues specifically related to transportation of toxic by inhalation (TIH) and other hazardous materials.

FRA Revised Final Rule Effective June 16, 2008

On June 16, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) responded to several Petitions for Reconsideration of its February 13 Final Rule (see May update), which federalized railroad operating practices pertaining to point protection for shoving movements, operating switches and fixed derails, and leaving equipment in the foul. The revised Final Rule is effective immediately.

The Joint Labor Petition, filed by the American Train Dispatchers Association, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division, the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen, the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, and the United Transportation Union questioned the need for civil penalties in cases of willful violation of the regulation. The unions pointed out that human factor accident rates by last year had declined to levels not seen since the mid-1990s, and that the potential for individual liability would suppress self-reporting of inadvertent violations.

FRA termed Labor’s argument “a model of railroad safety scholarship, describing in broad strokes the major changes in the industry that, in the view of the writers, may have influenced safety trends.” In the end, however, the FRA denied the request, stating that “civil penalty sanctions are a statutorily-imposed consequence of regulatory non-compliance,” and not driven by accident data. FRA also disagreed that its power to disqualify someone from a safety-sensitive position pursuant to 49 CFR Part 209 was an appropriate alternative to a civil penalty, and reasserted its published position that “FRA would consider self-reporting a strong reason for mitigation of the civil penalty, disqualification order, or other enforcement remedy.”

With regard to the American Association of Railroad’s petition requesting repeal of the Good Faith Challenge (GFC) requirements or, alternatively, replacing the requirements with those in effect for roadway workers, the FRA reiterated its finding that “there is a need for the good faith challenge regulation.” Moreover, FRA ruled, a more robust process was necessary for these operating procedures because “roadway workers generally share a more cooperative working relationship with their supervisors than operating employees do with yardmasters, trainmasters and their other railroad officer supervisors.”

The FRA also addressed the issue of GFC procedures in joint operations territory, which was not included in the original Final Rule. It is the FRA’s position that “railroads who operate in joint operations will need to ensure that its employees know which railroad’s procedures apply and what those procedures require,” and “unless otherwise specified in a railroad’s procedures, the host railroad’s procedures will apply and it will be the host railroad’s obligation to provide review of the alleged non-complying order and to maintain a record when necessary.”

Other issues addressed in the Final Rule pertained to use of shove lights without point protection, which Labor opposed; the inclusion of shove warning systems that rely solely on radio signal warnings; and the point protection technology standard for remote control zones.