At the recent National Association of State Legislative Board Chairmen’s Meeting in Philadelphia, June 30 – July 3, (which President Schneider, 2nd Vice-President/Assistant National Legislative Representative Dianne Shifflett, and I attended and which is one reason why this month’s update is so late), discussion ensued about the importance of the BLET Political Action Committee (PAC) Fund. As you know, our legislators are the ones making decisions that govern our everyday lives and the future of our nation. Although the word “politics” has a negative connotation to many in this day and age, this is the system that is in place in our country, so we just have to make the best of it and do what we can to help those political candidates who support our interests and our causes get elected and/or re-elected. Millions of dollars are spent by Big Business each year in support of anti-union candidates. PAC Fund monies raised through voluntary contributions of BLET members are used to support the campaigns of labor-friendly politicians (Democrat & Republican). If every BLET family would contribute just a mere $1 a month to the PAC Fund, that would amount to over $300,000 a year, which would put our Legislative Department in a much better position to support more candidates. With the recent pay increase for railroad employees, this seems a good time to commit just a little of that monthly paycheck to the PAC Fund. Division secretary-treasurers can set up payroll deduction for you, so it’s fairly painless. To sign up for payroll deduction to the PAC Fund, go to the BLET Legislative Department website at www.bletdc.org or contact your division secretary-treasurer to obtain a form.
Vote Withdrawn on S.146, Railroad Antitrust Enforcement Act
Last month, BLET members and their families were asked to contact their Senators to request that they vote no on Senator Reid’s (D-NV) motion to proceed on the Railroad Antitrust Enforcement Act, introduced by Senator Herb Kohl (D-WI), and to oppose Senator Kohl’s cloture vote which was scheduled for June 2. On June 1, Senator John J. Rockefeller (D-WV) and Senator Kohl (D-WI) came to an agreement to withdraw the June 2 vote and vowed to work together to craft comprehensive reform of the Surface Transportation Board. They hope to introduce their plan in July. Thanks again to all of you who contacted your Senators!
High Speed Rail
A delegation of passenger rail leaders from the BLET and the BMWED attended a Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)-sponsored Passenger Rail Forum on June 2. They came away highly encouraged by President Obama’s vision for high speed rail, which includes the planning of a number of 100- to 600-mile rail corridors that range from upgrades to existing rail lines, to entirely new rail lines exclusively devoted to 150 to 250 mph trains. This is to be accomplished through long-term commitments at both the federal and state levels. BLET President Rodzwicz cited the meeting as “another example of how both BLET and BMWED are staying ahead of the curve and helping to fashion a future where Americans will enjoy reliable, frequent passenger trains operated by Rail Conference members over Rail Conference maintained rights of way.”
On June 17, the FRA published Interim Program Guidelines for states and regions to apply for federal funds for high speed rail projects. Officials from the Department of Transportation and the FRA met with more than 1,000 people across the country to receive input in preparation for developing the program’s grant application guidelines (to see the entire plan, go to http://www.fra.dot.gov/us/content/2243). The guidelines require extensive financial and environmental planning to ensure that projects are worthy of investment and hold the promise of being successful. Grants will be offered for both planning and construction so that states can apply for funds no matter what stage of development their project is in. Proposals will be considered on the merits for their ability to make trips quicker and more convenient; to reduce congestion on highways and at airports; and to meet other environmental, energy, and safety goals. These guidelines also authorize the Department of Transportation to actively promote standard specifications for rail cars and other equipment. The FRA will award the first round of grants by mid-September. Since the guidelines were published, many states are coming forward with their proposed plans for high-speed rail projects and, in some cases, states are forming alliances to formulate plans that span across several states.
There has been some controversy about what the top speed of these high-speed trains will actually be able to safely achieve. FRA Administrator Joe Szabo stated, “We’ve got to stop worrying about achieving top-end speeds like they have in Europe and Asia and focus instead on reducing trip times and increasing reliability.”
Hours of Service Law
Because of significant changes in the Hours of Service Requirements that govern BLET members following the passage of the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, the FRA has now published an interim series of interpretations regarding the new Hours of Service laws that take effect on July 16. Some of the major changes include:
l Increases to the amount of off-duty time required between work tours and a
prohibition against a railroad interrupting that time;
l Caps on the number of service hours and limbo time hours; and
l Mandatory days off when someone initiates a tour of duty on six or more
The FRA’s interpretations explain how the new Hours of Service laws will be enforced. President Rodzwicz encourages all members to become familiar with the interpretations during this interim period wherein interested parties will be allowed to make comments. The BLET National Division, in conjunction with the BLET National Legislative Office, is reviewing the interpretations and will file appropriate comments.
With the support of the National Division, BLET General Chairmen whose properties will be affected by these changes continue their attempts to negotiate with the carriers in order to create smooth transition when the changes become effective.
To read the FRA’s Interpretations, please go to: http://www.ble-t.org/pr/pdf/HOSinterpretations 090626.pdf.
Funding for Positive Train Control
Another provision of the Rail Safety Improvement Act passed last Fall authorizes the establishment of a railroad safety technology grants program. The legislation states that the program is to be fully funded in the Fiscal Year 2010 Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development Appropriations Bill at a minimum of $50 million. This program will provide for critical funding for the implementation of Positive Train Control
technology, which has been mandated across most of the U.S. rail network by the year 2015. With more commuters turning to commuter rail in today’s struggling economy, some Senators, including Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and John D. Rockefeller IV (D-VA), are asking that this grant be fully funded, at a minimum, to the authorized amount.
The Surface Transportation Authorization Act of 2009
Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Oberstar (D-MN) introduced the Surface Transportation Authorization Act of 2009 in the House last month. This $450 billion, six-year highway and transit reauthorization proposal, which was adopted by the Highways and Transit Committee on June 24, will help create jobs in the design and construction sectors, provide more public transit options to the citizens of this country, reduce traffic congestion, lower levels of greenhouse gas emissions, and fund essential infrastructure safety upgrades. The proposed bill provides an additional $50 billion investment for high-speed rail and restructures federal surface transportation by consolidating or terminating more than 75 transportation programs. It will also streamline the federal loan system for railroads, making it easier for states and railroads to apply for loans.
The Committee expects to pass the bill by mid-July, with passage by the full House before the August congressional recess. This plan may be delayed because of concerns by the Obama administration and the Senate. The administration wants to postpone the reauthorization for 18 months and pass a stop gap measure for funding in the meantime. The Senate supports the Administration.
BLET and UTU File Joint Petition to Prohibit One-Person Crews
On June 12, the BLET and the UTU filed a joint petition for an emergency order with the FRA seeking prohibition of one-person train crews, including conventional as well as remote-control yard switching operations. The petition states that: “The workload associated with [remote control operations], while performing other safety critical tasks, demands too much of a single individual, including loss of situational awareness,” and cites the May 10 accident in Selkirk, NY, that took the life of a UTU-represented conductor who was working alone and using a remote control devide. It also states that a 2006 FRA report entitled “Safety of Remote Control Operations” contains major flaws. The FRA report contains erroneous figures that resulted from the formulas they used to calculate the statistics. Once this was corrected, the data showed that the RCL injury rate was almost 80 percent higher than the conventional switching injury rate, and the normalized RCL fatality rate was over 3.5 times the normalized conventional switching fatality rate. The petition concludes: “It is time for the FRA to take a proactive safety stance, and not merely a band-aid reactive approach to this issue.” The BLET and the Auxiliary have fought for many years for passage of two-man crew legislation.
Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
On June 1, a three-member arbitration panel ruled that qualified grievants who were forced to use vacation time, or accrued-but-not-yet scheduled personal leave days instead of FMLA are entitled to receive a day’s pay at their then-obtaining straight-time rates for each of those days. The panel stated that the remedy is compensatory, not punitive: “What grievants lost was a contract right of significant value. Grievants suffered more than ‘mere inconvenience’ when they lost their contract right to choose when to take paid time off. Our purpose is to provide compensation for those losses, not to punish the carriers for having caused them.”
However, the remedy does not apply to everyone. The report states that, “[g]rievants who asked for and later did receive unpaid vacation and personal leave for paid leave days that the carriers who employed them had substituted FMLA leave are not entitled to the remedy … only for those lost vacation and personal leave days for which they elected to and did receive unpaid leave.”
In order to receive compensation, employees must have submitted a claim in a timely manner following the infraction.
Health Care Reform
Although this is not exclusively a railroad-related issue, health care reform this summer is a national priority. It must include a public plan option that provides affordable health care for all Americans, strengthens Medicare, overhauls Medicare Part D, and creates affordable long-term services and supports.
BLET Vice President/National Legislative Representative John Tolman sent a letter to all U.S. Senators on behalf of the 59,000 active and retired BLET Members, stating the BLET’s opposition to any efforts to alter the tax treatment of employer-provided health care and asking that the promises made by candidates in the last National Election, including President Obama, to oppose taxing health care benefits, be honored.
Please tell your members of Congress to:
- Support an affordable public health insurance option that is available to everyone, national in scope with real bargaining clout, ready to go on day one, and publicly run, i.e., accountable and transparent to Congress and to voters
- Oppose the taxation of health care benefits.
- Support inclusion of the CLASS Act (S. 697 and H.R. 1721) for long term care in health care reform.