Raising the Bar for Crude by Rail Shipments
DOT issues emergency order for SERC Notification: On behalf of families and communities along the rail lines nationwide, emergency responders in those communities, and those who move the trains, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) issued an emergency order on May 7 requiring all U.S. railroads operating trains containing large amounts of highly flammable Bakken crude oil to notify State Emergency Response Commissions (SERCs) about the operation of those trains through their states. Railroads that fail to comply face penalties of $175,000 per day and a prohibition against moving Bakken oil.
The order, which was issued following a string of fiery tank-car accidents in North Dakota, Alabama, Virginia, and Quebec, requires that SERC notification be provided for every train carrying more than 1 million gallons of Bakken crude (about 35 tank cars) in a particular state. The notification must include estimated volumes of Bakken crude, frequencies of anticipated train traffic, and the planned routes. The order also requires that railroads provide the SERCs contact information for at least one responsible party and help the commissions share the information with appropriate emergency responders in affected communities. The disclosures were due by midnight on June 7.
Some railroads are seeking agreements that the information won’t be publicly shared. They said the information is security sensitive and releasing it could put them at a competitive disadvantage and they are asking states to sign agreements not to disclose the information. But some states are refusing, saying that the information should not be kept from the public.
FRA issues safety advisory for tank cars: Also on May 7, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) issued a safety advisory strongly urging those shipping or offeringBakken crude to use tank-car designs with the highest available level of integrity. The FRA and PHMSA also are advising carriers and offerers to avoid the use of older legacy “DOT-111” or “CTC-111” tank cars to transport Bakken crude.
“Changes in railroad operations over the last several years, including increased rail traffic, higher in-train forces due to the transportation of hazardous materials tank cars at higher gross rail loads, and the likelihood of individual tank cars accumulating more miles annually, have resulted in tank car design changes to accommodate these increased stresses and to significantly reduce the chances of a catastrophic failure,” FRA and PHMSA officials said in the safety advisory. “Design changes include new tank car steel and improvements of structural features. Older ‘legacy’ tank cars, however, without more modern construction and design enhancements, continue to be used to transport hazardous materials, includingBakken crude oil.”
The USDOT and the FRA have undertaken more than a dozen actions to enhance crude-by-rail safety over the past 10 months.
Senate Committee Appropriations Bill for FY 15 Funding Levels
The Senate Committee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development passed its appropriations bill on June 5 with a bipartisan vote (29-1). The low funding level of $1.39 billion for Amtrak was expected and is consistent with the level of funding provided in fiscal year 2014. This funding will allow Amtrak to continue providing safe and reliable passenger rail service in 46 states and to make investments in the state-of-good-repair infrastructure projects. Amtrak’s ridership hit an all-time high of 31.6 million people last fiscal year, and Amtrak has reached record ridership levels for 10 of the last 11 years.
The recommendation is $1 billion less than the budget request, which assumed the mandatory funding would be provided through new legislation authorizing surface transportation programs instead of the appropriations process. No date yet on when the bill will go to the full Senate.
EPA Needs a More Balanced Energy Plan for Coal
On June 2, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a proposal called the “Clean Power Plan” that would regulate electrical generation plants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 30 percent by 2030. The EPA is expected to finalize the rule by June 2015, after which states will have until 2018 to submit their plans to cut emissions. The proposed rule poses a highly charged political battle and has been met with mixed reactions. Some see it as an attack on the U.S. coal industry that could have a devastating effect on the nation’s economy and on those communities reliant on the coal industry.
Environmental activists consider the rule to be an important step to address climate change, however many of them believe that the rule does not do enough. Some industry experts and advocacy groups have challenged the legality of the rule.
For those whose livelihood depends on the rail industry, the proposal poses serious economic concerns. As BLET National President Pierce indicated in a statement issued on June 4: “Nearly one in five railroad jobs is directly linked to coal haulage. If these jobs are lost it is unlikely that new business generated on our nation’s railroad will ever make up for the loss of coal.”
President Pierce expressed support for the nation’s efforts to invest in renewable energy and corresponding jobs, but stated that the economy as a whole will suffer if new jobs created in the “green economy” are not well-paying and secure, which is a likely scenario. Recognizing that climate change is a global problem and it is important for the U.S. to take a leading role in solving this problem, President Pierce also pointed out that other countries like China and India are not in a position to switch from coal any time soon.
“Without a binding agreement on global greenhouse gas emissions, this proposal threatens to put U.S. manufacturing at a cost disadvantage and even more jobs will go overseas,” President Pierce stated. “This is why deploying cost-effective carbon capture and sequestration technology is essential and should be a priority for this Administration and the Congress.”
In the weeks ahead, as Congress reconvenes, many committees will be addressing the proposed EPA ruling on coal emissions. The BLET and the Teamsters Rail Conference will work to support a balanced energy policy that stresses affordability and reliability.
Preserving Amtrak’s Southwest Chief
The Amtrak Southwest Chief has made daily runs between Chicago and Los Angeles since 1971, providing passengers with picturesque views of the vast expanse of the American West. Amtrak is now considering a plan to reroute the historic train from Colorado in two years to better-maintained tracks. Maintenance to the more than 600 miles of current train rails between Hutchinson, Kansas, and Albuquerque, New Mexico is estimated at about $200 million. Amtrak has said it will pay $40 million to repair the current route. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, which owns the tracks, has not made a commitment. Amtrak estimates that, in order for the Chief to maintain its current route, Colorado, Kansas, and New Mexico must come up with $4 million annually for the next 10 years to go toward the maintenance needed for the rails. If the Chief were to relocate its route to better-maintained rails in Oklahoma and Texas, it would still operate in parts of Kansas and New Mexico, albeit with fewer stops, but Colorado could lose the train altogether. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper supports keeping the passenger train operating and expanding its route to Pueblo. He is working with neighboring states to find the best way to proceed.
In mid-May, Governor Hickenlooper signed legislation to preserve the current route of the Chief. The new law, HB 14-1161, supported by the BLET, establishes a Commission charged with securing the means necessary to keep the Southwest Chief running through Southwest Kansas, Southeast Colorado, and Northern New Mexico. With the signing of this legislation, Colorado joins Kansas and New Mexico in a multi-state partnership applying for $24.5 million in grant funds from the U.S. Department of Transportation to pay for repairs to the tracks.
Colorado State Legislative Board Chairman Jim Wilmesher stated that BLET members in Colorado were active in lobbying to save the Southwest Chief and in supporting HB 14-1161. Brother Wilmesher attended the signing ceremony on behalf of the BLET.
BLET National President Dennis Pierce thanked Brother Wilmesher and the BLET members in Colorado who played a role in lobbying to save the Southwest Chief for a job well done.
Train Conductor Wins Whistleblower Case
On May 7, the U.S. Department of Labor and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) ruled Wayne Laidler, a conductor based out of Port Huron, Michigan, for seven years, had been wrongfully fired by Canadian National Railway. The case, considered a whistleblower lawsuit, stems from Laidler being fired after he refused to exit his train to conduct an inspection of an oncoming train at a Flint, Michigan substation in December 2012.
Laidler argued that his train was stopped on a bridge on December 15, 2012, at 3 a.m. where it was very dark and foggy. He stated that there was no safe place for him to stand to inspect the oncoming train. He said his actions were questioned and, after saying it was unsafe for him to complete the inspection, he was terminated for not doing so.
According to the OSHA ruling, Laidler was correct in his claims that the conditions to perform the inspection were unsafe and determined that CN violated the Federal Railroad Safety Act, and has been ordered to reinstate Laidler with guaranteed pay and monetary compensation. He is to receive $92,916 in lost wages plus interest, $6,408 of lost vacation pay, $45,000 for the emotional stress of being wrongfully terminated, $100,000 from Canadian National Railway in order to discourage repetitive behavior from CN, and an amount equal to his attorney’s fees.
BLET Members Authorize Strike on SEPTA
Nearly 99 percent of BLET members working for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) have voted to authorize a strike when a mandatory 30-day cooling off period under the Railway Labor Act comes to an end on June 14, 2013. The National Mediation Board released the BLET and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) from mediation with SEPTA on May 14, creating a 30-day cooling off period, which expires at 12:01 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time on June 14. At that point, self-help is available to the parties, which means the BLET and/or the IBEW could go on strike.
BLET Vice President Steve Bruno noted that the union’s goal remains to bring the dispute to resolution in the most expeditious manner possible. “It is unfortunate that SEPTA’s refusal to bargain in good faith makes the June 14, 2014 self-help deadline the best option for our members. In any event, the citizens of Philadelphia should be prepared for the shutdown of SEPTA’s rail service in the Philadelphia metropolitan area if a strike or lockout should occur,” Bruno said.
BLET National President Dennis Pierce said the near unanimous vote in favor of a strike is a clear mandate from BLET members that they are prepared to fight for a fair agreement. “It is unfortunate that SEPTA continues to insist that its locomotive engineers accept less than the economic pattern it set with the Transport Workers Union five years ago,” Pierce said. President Pierce also praised those who participated in the strike vote, saying “Ballots were returned by almost 86% of BLET members working for SEPTA, and their near-unanimous vote to authorize a strike provides BLET with a powerful mandate.”