Legislative Update October 2008

This is the last website update I will be sending before the National Elections in November. Although I would never purport to tell you how to vote, I would like to point out some facts that I feel are important considerations for those of us whose livelihoods depends on what transpires in the rail industry on a daily, monthly, or yearly basis.

  • On October 1, 2008, the most important piece of legislation in the last 30 years affecting our nation’s rail industry, both passenger and freight, was passed in the U.S. Senate (see “Combined Rail Safety/Amtrak Authorization Bill Passed”below). GOP presidential nominee John McCain was amongst the 24 who voted against this legislation; Democratic nominee Barack Obama was one of the 74 who voted for the bill.

  • John McCain’s proposed health care plan, in contrast to Barack Obama’s health care plan, would have disastrous effects on the health care coverage of all BLET members and their families (see “Health Care Coverage for BLET Members Could be in Jeopardy,” below).

If you have not registered to vote, do it now!!! Traditionally new voters must be registered 29 days in advance of voting day… that means you must register by October 6 in order to cast your vote on November 4. In many states, you can register to vote online or by mail.

 

Because we never know what might be happening in our lives from one day to the next (especially those of us who work in the rail industry), I highly encourage EVERYONE to cast your vote early if it is allowed in your state.

 

Click here for the chart to find out the Absentee and Early Voting Laws for your state. Let’s all do our part to make this a record year for voting – it’s the most important election of our lifetime!

 

COMBINED RAIL SAFETY/AMTRAK AUTHORIZATION BILL PASSED

 

On September 29, The Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, S. 294, was combined with H.R. 2095, the Railroad Safety Enhancement Act of 2008, in an attempt to get these bills passed through Congress before they adjourn for the year. The September 12 train accident in Los Angeles brought the issue of positive train control and other safety measures included in the rail safety bill to the forefront, adding yet another state of urgency to move this legislation quickly. On October 1, the combined rail safety/Amtrak authorization bill was passed by the Senate with 74 yays and 24 nays.

Although the passage of this legislation is good news for Amtrak, we are a little disappointed in some of the provisions of the rail safety legislation, as it does not really do enough to abate fatigue. Hopefully we can improve on this next year under a new administration.

In a statement issued by BLET National Legislative Representative John Tolman, he states:

“The bill, an amended rail safety measure, would authorize significant new funding for Amtrak at $5.3 billion in capital grants, $2.9 billion in operating grants and $1.9 billion for intercity passenger rail over five years.

“The legislation limits railroad operating crews to a maximum 276 hours per month, including limbo time. It limits limbo time to 40 hours a month the first year after enactment and 30 hours a month thereafter.

“Some other rail safety provisions include:

  • Targeted fatigue countermeasures: a railroad’s plan shall take into account the varying circumstances of operations by the railroad on different parts of its system, and shall prescribe appropriate fatigue countermeasures to address those varying circumstances. The plan should also address the following:
    • Employee education.
    • Opportunities for identification, diagnosis, and treatment of any medical condition that may affect alertness or fatigue, including sleep disorders.
    • Scheduling practices for employees, including innovative scheduling practices, on duty call practices, work and rest cycles, increased consecutive days off for employees, changes in shift patterns, appropriate scheduling practices for varying types of work, and other aspects of employee scheduling that would reduce employee fatigue and cumulative sleep loss.
    • Methods to minimize accidents and incidents that occur as a result of working at times when scientific and medical research have shown increased fatigue disrupts employees’ circadian rhythm.
    • Alertness strategies.
    • Opportunities to obtain restful sleep at lodging facilities, including employee sleeping quarters provided by the railroad carrier.
    • The increase of the number of consecutive hours of off-duty rest, during which an employee receives no communication from the employing railroad carrier or its managers, supervisors, officers, or agents.
    • Avoidance of abrupt changes in rest cycles for employees.
    • Additional elements that the Secretary considers appropriate.
  • 10 hour call pilot project and scheduled call pilot project.
  • Labor and management can negotiate alternative hours of service plans.
  • Existing hours of service law shall apply to commuter, short haul passenger carriers, or intercity carriers until regulations are issued by the Secretary within three years after the law is enacted.
  • Implementation of positive train control by 2015.
  • Mandating prompt medical attention for injured railroad employees.
  • Provides for a study of the locomotive cab environment.
  • Mandating critical incident stress debriefing.
  • Mandating a study of railroad employee exposure to nuclear radiation.
  • Requiring require railroads to provide emergency escape breathing apparatus with respiratory protection for all crewmembers in locomotive cabs.

“It now goes to the White House for the President’s approval, the Bush administration threatened to veto an Amtrak bill that the House passed in June, but has been silent on the measure now before the Senate. House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Oberstar , D-Minn., said he is optimistic President Bush will sign it.”

SAFETY MEASURES INSTITUTED FOLLOWING SEPT. 12 TRAIN COLLISION

A number of safety measures have been instituted following the tragic incident on September 12 when a Union Pacific freight train and a Metrolink commuter train collided head-on in the Chatsworth district of Los Angeles, leaving 25 dead and 135 injured.

  • Metrolink Adds Second Engineer to Some Trains

As an interim measure to provide “another set of eyes,” Metrolink announced September 26 that it will begin adding a second engineer to some of its commuter trains. The backup engineers will come from a pool of 10-15 relief engineers normally used to replace primary engineers who are on vacation, sick or out on training.

  • FRA to Ban Cell Phone Use in Locomotive Cabs

On October 1, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a statement verifying that the engineer operating the Metrolink train involved in the Sept. 12 collision in Los Angeles had sent a cell phone text message 22 seconds before the crash. In response to that statement, FRA Administrator Joseph Boardman issued an emergency order on October 2 banning the use of all electronic devices, including cell phones, iPods, and texting devices in locomotive cabs.

  • Push for Automatic Train Stop System on Metrolink

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) board voted 9 to 0 to issue a series of safety directives to Metrolink. The MTA said it is trying to find $5 million to use toward securing an automatic train stop system for Metrolink while seeking $97 million in rail safety money that may be available from the state. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill on Sept. 25 that would allow voters in Los Angeles County to consider a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for more mass transit and road improvements. Metrolink could receive as much as $1.2 billion over the 30-year life of the tax hike.

  • Positive Train Control

The Rail Safety Bill passed in the Senate on October 1, and awaiting signature of President Bush, would require implementation of positive train control by 2015. Metrolink Vice Chairman told the MTA Board that “It’s simply not acceptable to wait until 2015. The bottom line is if there’s anything that can be done in the interim, I want it analyzed, I want it looked at, and I want our experts telling us if it should be done.”

HEALTH CARE COVERAGE FOR BLET MEMBERS COULD BE IN JEOPARDY

The health care “reform” plan being offered by Presidential candidate John McCain has uncovered some facts that should worry BLET members and all railroad workers. McCain’s plan would end the tax deductibility of employer-sponsored coverage. This move would have a significant impact on our coverage under the national industry plan. The following excerpt from the September 29 newsflash on the BLET website outlines how McCain’s plan would impact our health care coverage:

“This year, each railroad’s total contribution toward the various elements of our national freight benefits package — including short-term disability — exceeds $15,000 per BLET member. Enactment of the McCain plan would subject the carriers to Medicare and Railroad Retirement Tier 1 and Tier 2 taxes on this sum. Depending upon an individual’s taxable income, carrier costs could rise over $3,000 per employee. This would be the equivalent of a 19.75% increase in the carrier’s cost.

”Each member also would be subject to additional Medicare and Railroad Retirement taxes of up to $2,000 or more. BLET members would be further impacted in two other ways. First, the “pre-tax” status of the $166.25 monthly employee premium contribution and the carrier’s $40 monthly short-term disability contribution would end, and those contributions would have to be made with after-tax dollars. Second, the value of the carrier’s contributions would be included in each member’s taxable income.

”For someone in the 25% marginal tax bracket — which includes single people with a taxable income in excess of $31,850, and married people filing jointly with a taxable income over $63,700 — the total income tax impact is over $4,500. For someone in the 28% marginal tax bracket — which includes single people with a taxable income in excess of $77,100, and married people filing jointly with a taxable income over $128,500 — the total income tax impact is over $5,100.

”Promoters of the McCain plan point to $2,500 individual and $5,000 family tax credits that are included in the plan. However, it is unclear whether workers who receive employer-sponsored health benefits will be entitled to the tax credit. What is clear is that, in either case, the railroads’ costs will rise significantly, and your taxes also will increase steeply.”

RAILROAD RETIRMENT FINANCES ARE SOUND

In the current financial crisis of our nation, I have to admit that the status of our Railroad Retirement fund has crossed my mind a time or two. A newsflash recently forwarded by NARVRE Legislative Director Gary Faley states that: “The latest actuarial report on the finances of the Railroad Retirement system proclaims it to be in ‘generally favorable’ financial health, with no cash-flow problems anticipated during the next 25 years.”

According to the Railroad Retirement Board, the losses realized by the Railroad Retirement Investment Trust this year are less than the 16% positive return from last year. The Board also stated that the Trust has minimal exposure to the kind of investments that have caused financial difficulties with other institutions. Additionally, the Railroad Retirement financing changes ordered by Congress in 2001 provide for a payroll tax adjustment to ensure the fund remains actuarially sound for the long-term.  The railroad carriers would face the burden of higher payroll taxes, not the employees.

For more information on Railroad Retirement and Railroad Retirement Unemployment Insurance, as well as the Railroad Retirement Investment Trust, go to: www.rrb.gov.