Legislative Update March 2008

Rail Safety

We realized some real progress last October with the passage of H.R. 2095, the Federal Railroad Safety Improvement Act of 2007. The Senate version of the bill, S. 1889 is still pending. This bill contains many of the same provisions as the House bill, as well as provisions to eliminate camp cars and reduce dark territory hazards, but there is one major difference and it’s a big one—the Senate bill mandates that the total number of hours of limbo time and on-duty time be limited to 276 per month. This provision was orchestrated by the carriers and would be detrimental to many of our engineers. Because we view this as a deal-breaker, our Legislative Department is working hard to have that provision struck, either via an amendment in the Senate or during conference. But, we’ve learned to expect this when someone is in the White House who is more interested in helping corporations make money than the employees who risk their lives to make that happen.

Amtrak

The Bush administration recommended further cuts for Amtrak in its fiscal year 2009 budget. Amtrak would see a 40 percent cut, from $1.33 billion in fiscal 2008 to $800 million in fiscal 2009. Capital grants for the rail service would be sliced by $325 million. Operating subsidy grants, which received $475 million in 2008, would be eliminated. Instead, Amtrak would have to request the money through the Efficiency Incentive Grants account and would not receive it unless certain benchmarks were reached. BLET National Legislative Representative John Tolman stated, “These cuts are a misguided attempt by President Bush to balance the budget by 2012 on the backs of Amtrak workers and passengers, and at the expense of rail safety.”

Amtrak is expected to make a request to Congress for a larger amount, stating that $1.67 billion is needed. Of that total, Amtrak said $506 million will be needed to meet operating costs, while $801.4 million will be needed to invest in capital projects and $345 million would be spent on debt service. The remaining $19 million would be required to fund Amtrak’s office of inspector general.

In October, the Senate voted 70-22 to approve S. 294, which gave Amtrak nearly $2 billion a year. That bill is pending in the House.

BLET Reaches Tentative Agreement with Amtrak

 

On March 4, The BLET and Amtrak reached a tentative agreement on their labor contract
covering 1,300 Passenger Engineers. The new contract is based exclusively on the recommendations of Presidential Emergency Board 242 and is typically identical to the agreements reached by the nine other labor unions in January. It also provides for a wage improvement package amounting to a 34.7 percent increase over the hourly rate in effect at the end of the last agreement, 100% retroactive pay recovery, and no work rule changes. “There are still numerous other collective bargaining goals that must be addressed and won in the next bargaining round,” said Amtrak General Chairman Mark Kenny. “However, this tentative agreement stands as a monumental step toward equalizing the eight years of inequity and frustration BLET Members, and all Amtrak employees have been forced to confront on a daily basis.”

Mexican Trucking Issue

On February 12, the Teamsters Union argued in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that the Bush administration broke the law when it opened the borders to trucks from Mexico in September 2007.

Congress had set safety requirements to be implemented before the border could be opened to long-haul trucks, including upgrading inspection facilities, computer databases, and state enforcement capacity. Although these requirements have not yet been met, the Transportation Department opened the border as part of a pilot program on September 6 and a handful of trucking companies are now participating in the program.

The Teamsters filed for an emergency injunction to prevent the pilot program from starting in August. That request was denied but the lawsuit was allowed to proceed.

Section 136 of the omnibus budget signed into law in December included a provision to ban funding for the pilot program. The Teamsters will argue in court that Transportation Secretary Mary Peters broke the law when she announced she would not close the border.

Teamster members held a rally outside the courthouse before the hearing, carrying signs that read “NAFTA Kills” and “Fire Mary Peters.”

STB to Hold Hearing on Railroads’ Common Carrier Obligation

The Surface Transportation Board (STB) will hold a public hearing on April 24 in Washington, D.C., to review railroads’ common carrier obligation. The hearing will highlight the importance of and provide a better understanding of the obligation — railroads’ duty to provide transportation or service upon a reasonable request — and help the board with its monitoring and compliance work.

The hearing will focus on various topics, such as service limitations resulting from constrained capacity; cost and safety issues related to the transportation of hazardous materials, especially toxic inhalation hazards; carrier-imposed requirements for infrastructure investments by shippers; the impact of volume requirements or incentives; “economically motivated” service reductions and metering of service demand; the proper use of rail embargoes; when it’s necessary to obtain abandonment authorization; and to whom the common carrier obligation applies.

Counseling & Medical Leave for Crew Members involved in Serious Accidents

Bills are being introduced at the state level to mandate carriers to provide or make available counseling within 48 hours to train crews involved in an accident resulting in loss of life or serious bodily injury. The legislation also requires that the crew members shall be relieved of duty with compensation for a minimum of three days, provided that the accident was not due to negligence of that crew member. S. 1889, The Railroad Safety Enhancement Act of 2007, which is currently pending in the Senate, contains similar provisions.