September Legislative Update

This is my last monthly update as National Legislative Representative for the BLET Auxiliary. To all of you who have given me positive feedback about these updates over the last 7-1/2 years, I thank you for your kind remarks. As you read this update, please pay special attention to the compelling remarks made by BLET National President Pierce with regard to the upcoming elections that are included in the section entitled “Effort to Protect Two-Person Crews on Locomotives Continues.” I urge each and every one of you to please get out and vote in the upcoming elections, and to do all in your power to get your families and friends to vote, and help them understand why it is important, for their safety and well being and the future of our country, to vote for those candidates who are willing to work on behalf of working class Americans. 

Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2014

Recognizing the need for comprehensive reform of the nation’s rail safety laws and protocols following a series of high profile rail catastrophes nationwide, U.S. Senators Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) and Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) introduced S.2784, The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2014, on September 11, 2014. This legislation will impact all freight and passenger railroads, including Long Island Railroad, Metro-North, New Jersey Transit, Amtrak, and other passenger railroads across the country. The bill puts into law many of the recommendations found in the Federal Railroad Administration’s “Operation Deep Dive” report assessing the safety and training plans and practices by Metro-North, as well as the findings of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Blue Ribbon Panel study released earlier this month.

With regard to a most important issue for our members, Section 21 of the bill states that “No freight train or light engine used in connection with the movement of freight may be operated unless it has a crew size of at least 2 individuals of which: (1) one individual is certified as a locomotive operator under section 20135; and (2) one individual is certified as a train conductor under section 20163.

Other provisions of the bill would:

  • bolster the Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) oversight by authorizing an increase in funding for its safety and operations work;
  • require greater FRA accountability for unmet statutory mandates and open NTSB recommendations through regular quarterly reports to Congress;
  • strengthen the FRA’s enforcement powers by increasing civil penalties for those who engage in unsafe activities;
  • require coordination between the USDOT and Federal Communications Commission to ensure passenger railroads have access to necessary spectrum to make PTC operate effectively;
  • require expedited FRA action on the development of rules governing fatigue management plans for railroads;
  • require safer operating practices for the transportation of crude oil and flammable liquids; and
  • require the national roll out of a confidential close-call reporting initiative and participation by freight and passenger railroads.

Effort to Protect Two-Person Crews on Locomotives Continues

The widely publicized and controversial tentative crew consist agreement between BNSF and the SMART-Transportation Division failed ratification in the second week of September. As BLET National President Dennis Pierce stated in a newsflash posted on the BLET website on September 17: “… continuing our effort to preserve two-person crews as a minimum is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do.” In his statement, he reemphasized that the three avenues available to protect a two-person crew are regulation, legislation, and collectively bargained agreements.

On the legislative front, the BLET will continue to work in unison with national representatives from SMART-TD in support of H.R. 3040, the Safe Freight Act, introduced last August, that would require a two-person crew on virtually all freight trains. Although this legislation will most probably die in the House during this Congress, we must ensure that it is re-introduced in the next Congress. The Rail Safety Improvement Act (outlined above) also includes crew size language similar to that found in H.R. 3040 and the BLET and SMART-TD are now working in support of that portion of S. 2784.

President Pierce went on to say that the political makeup of our nation is where all three of the available avenues for protecting a two-person crew intertwine, and delivered this compelling message about the importance of the upcoming elections: “We cannot realistically expect that certain politicians in the Senate or the House of Representatives, who constantly attack unions and the working class Americans that unions represent, will support our legislative efforts. This proves true every time an effort is made to return our government to the American people instead of the 1%; politicians consistently vote along party lines, as was the case last week when the Senate took up a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United Supreme Court decision. That decision opened the door for corporate America to buy election after election, ensuring that corporate interests are protected by the government at the expense of working class Americans.

“These groups will work very hard this fall to take control of the Senate, and if they are successful, then your interests as working class Americans will be at risk. Further, they will work to take the White House in 2016, and if they control the House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, and the White House, then all of the laws and legal protections that working class Americans have come to count on will be in jeopardy. In addition, those at FRA who write the regulations that we labor under would be appointed by an anti-worker President. Finally, should crew size get to a Presidential Emergency Board under the steps of the Railway Labor Act, that Board would be appointed by an anti-worker President.

“These anti-worker politicians are sponsored by the same corporate America that wants single-person crews. Those who want to preserve two-person crews must not be fooled by anti-worker politicians whose real intent is to make the richest Americans richer. They must not be distracted by that politician’s positions on the social issues of the day. These wolves in sheep’s clothing will try to convince you that you and they share the same position on some social issues, all the while working against your interests in the workplace. The straight truth is that these social issues will never protect you in the workplace, they will never put food on your family’s table, and they will never ensure that our workplace is its safest with two-person crews the mandatory minimum. Be heard this fall when you go to the voting booth. Don’t be fooled by politicians whose real master is the richest of Americans. Vote for candidates that will work for working class Americans.”

Passenger Rail Reauthorization

On September 14, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee introduced the Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act (PRRIA) of 2014, the law that will fund passenger rail for the next four years. This bipartisan bill, introduced by Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA), Ranking Member Nick Rahall (D-WV), Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee Chairman Jeff Denham (R-CA), and Subcommittee Ranking Member Corrine Brown (D-FL),to reauthorize passenger rail service through Fiscal Year 2018 misses the mark when it comes to adequate funding for Amtrak. Although the bill does not go as far as previous GOP efforts to completely eliminate Amtrak’s funding and privatize the Northeast routes, it would reduce Amtrak’s funding for new construction from approximately $1.3 billion per year under the last Amtrak appropriations measure to about $770 million annually beginning next year.

On a positive note, the bill does contain many common sense regulatory proposals, such as directing the Federal Railroad Administration to study restoration of passenger rail to the Gulf Coast, and making changes to regulatory oversight of projects to shorten timelines for project delivery.

Following full committee markup of the bill on September 17, Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) stated: “ … we cannot lose sight of the bigger picture, which is that we are still woefully underfunding Amtrak and passenger rail. We spend more than $50 billion per year on highways and transit, over $15 billion a year on aviation, while Amtrak gets just $1.4 billion, or less than 2 percent of federal transportation spending… Our number one priority should be trying to figure out how to increase funding for rail, and treat it as a mode equal to the way we treat other modes of transportation. Unfortunately this bill simply reauthorizes the current, grossly inadequate funding levels. But that is not surprising given the budget constraints imposed by the majority. Given the current situation in the House, however, this bill is probably the best we can hope for right now if we want to move a bipartisan bill.”

It is up to us to call on Congress to urge them to include a dedicated source of funding for Amtrak to survive and thrive into the future. Because Chairman Shuster has not secured floor time in November, it is likely that the bill will have to be reintroduced in the 114th Congress in 2015, so there is still time to impact the direction of this bill.

In closing, I express my gratitude to BLET National President Dennis Pierce, BLET Vice President and National Legislative Representative John Tolman, National Association of State Legislative Board Chairman Tim Smith, and the many state legislative board chairmen and division legislative representatives I have met and worked with over these last seven years. I appreciate the support that I have received and applaud you all for the work that you do on behalf of all of us whose livelihood depends on the railroads. Thank you also to all of those BLET members and family members who have taken the time to become educated, informed, and involved in the legislative process. Legislation is one of the most important instruments of government in organizing society and protecting citizens. Oftentimes our congressional leaders are unfamiliar with the operation of the railroads and the lives of those who work to keep the trains moving across the nation. It is our job to make them understand our issues and to do what we can to make sure that we elect leaders who will support those issues for the best interest of railroad employees and families, and the safety and security of the communities through which the trains roll day and night, around the clock. Keep up the good work everyone!