Winter 2017 Legislative Report
By Kathleen Bisbikis, National 2nd Vice President, National Legislative Rep., BLET Auxiliary
Below are some of the most recent news items that affect all of us. Please feel free to share these with your local auxiliary. If you have information you would like to share with me for future updates, please send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amtrak launches two new marketing campaigns aimed at rebuilding and growth
As restrictions on air travel grow more stringent with three of the “big four” U.S. airlines implementing a new class of fares known as “Basic Economy,” which allows these airlines to offer much less frills but charge close to the same amount as offered in previous years, Amtrak says look at us!
In September, Amtrak launched an ad campaign urging travelers to “Break the travel Quo.” This campaign is an attempt to remind travelers of the passenger rail option and the bonuses that come with it. Amtrak offers up to four bags of luggage for free, something unheard of on air travel, as well as free Wi-Fi, spacious seating areas, and the freedom to use electronic devices at all times without having to switch into airplane mode.
“We’re excited about this campaign because it showcases what we know our customers love about rail travel: comfort, convenience, and a premium experience,” said President and Co-CEO Richard Anderson.
In a second campaign, Amtrak says it’s “Ready to Build.” Amtrak takes it to the public in this campaign, listing the five areas of critically needed investment along the Northeast corridor:
- Hudson Tunnel project between New York and New Jersey. The project entails construction of a new tunnel serving Penn Station in New York City.
- Portal North Bridge project in New Jersey. The project would replace the century-old Portal Bridge with a new high-level, fixed-span bridge that will speed up trip times, improve rail-service reliability and eliminate the need to open for maritime traffic.
- Major stations development in Chicago and the Northeast. These projects would leverage public-private partnerships and under-used land and air rights to transform decades-old stations into more modern transportation hubs.
- Susquehanna River Bridge project in Maryland. That project would replace an existing two-track bridge with two new high-level bridges with a total of four tracks to allow for higher train speeds and eliminate the need to open for maritime traffic.
- Baltimore and Potomac (B&P) Tunnel project in Maryland. The project would replace a Civil War-era, 30 mph bottleneck with a four-tube tunnel that would allow for more reliable and frequent service.
Amtrak and its state and federal partners have begun planning and regulatory reviews for the multiyear projects. Once funding is identified and obtained, Amtrak and its partners are ready to finalize the design and begin construction, officials said.
Congressional Leaders Question Safety of Long Trains
In a letter dated November 7, 2017, Congressional leaders from the U.S. House of Representatives, Peter DeFazio and Michael Capuano, have asked for the federal government’s Government Accountability Office to review the safety and impact of long trains currently being run by Class I railroads. The Congressmen specify in their letter that, “Recent press reports indicate that some railroads are now operating trains with close to 200 or more cars that are more than two miles long.” The letter goes on to say, “We have concerns that longer trains can create unusually long delays at grade crossings and may pose safety risks to train crews and the public.” They also addressed a concern for the potential lack of radio communication between train crew members due to the excessive length of the train, and the safety hazard this could pose for crew members as well as the public.
DOT publishes final rule expanding Drug and Alcohol Testing
On November 13, 2017, the Department of Transportation (DOT) issued its final rule on Part 40 drug and alcohol testing. It states the following changes for employees who would be subject to testing:
“You will also be tested for four semi-synthetic opioids (i.e., hydrocodone, oxycodone, hydromorphone, oxymorphone). Some common names for these semi-synthetic opioids include OxyContin®, Percodan®, Percocet®, Vicodin®, Lortab®, Norco®, Dilaudid®, Exalgo®. In addition, you will no longer be tested for MDEA.”
“The opioid crisis is a threat to public safety when it involves safety-sensitive employees involved in the operation of any kind of vehicle or transport,” said Secretary Elaine L. Chao. “The ability to test for a broader range of opioids will advance transportation safety significantly and provide another deterrence to opioid abuse, which will better protect the public and ultimately save lives.”
Railroad Retirement Benefit Increase in 2018 (Taken from rrb.gov)
Cost-of-living increases are calculated in both the tier I and tier II benefits included in a railroad retirement annuity. Tier I benefits, like social security benefits, will increase by 2.0 percent, which is the percentage of the Consumer Price Index (CPI) rise. Tier II benefits will go up by 0.7 percent, which is 32.5 percent of the CPI increase. Vested dual benefit payments and supplemental annuities also paid by the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) are not adjusted for the CPI change.
In January 2018, the average regular railroad retirement employee annuity will increase $42 a month to $2,711 and the average of combined benefits for an employee and spouse will increase $60 a month to $3,937. For those aged widow(er)s eligible for an increase, the average annuity will increase $24 a month to $1,353. However, widow(er)s whose annuities are being paid under the Railroad Retirement and Survivors’ Improvement Act of 2001 will not receive annual cost-of-living adjustments until their annuity amount is exceeded by the amount that would have been paid under prior law, counting all interim cost-of-living increases otherwise payable. Some 50 percent of the widow(er)s on the RRB’s rolls are being paid under the 2001 law.
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Rail Safety Week Update
Operation Lifesaver teamed up with other organizations across the country to bring rail safety to the forefront during the first-ever U.S. Rail Safety Week, September 24-30, 2017. The week-long activities kicked off with “Operation Clear the Track.” Law enforcement across 48 states, involving over 200 police and sheriffs located in each state’s high incident grade crossings, enforced grade crossing laws, issuing citation and warnings to motorists. In addition, law enforcement handed out 240,000 railroad safety cards. “It’s critical that citizens in every corner of the country fully understand the dangers and consequences of trespassing on railroad property,” Amtrak Police Chief Neil Trugman said. “By mobilizing our forces, we hope to raise awareness, save lives and prevent injuries along the railroad rights-of-way from coast to coast.”
In a show of solidarity to promote rail safety, several other transit agencies also joined Operation Lifesaver during the week. Caltrain held events in Burlingame, Palo Alto, and Santa Clara Valley, where tables were set up during the morning commute with rail safety information being passed out to travelers. In Pennsylvania, Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) conducted a week-long education and social media campaign. Portland’s TriMet reminded travelers to pay attention to those things around you.
“We love our technology. But sometimes those tweets, likes, and updates can be distracting. Whether caught up in your phone, hunkered down under an umbrella, or just feeling impatient, safety takes just a few seconds. As part of the first-ever U.S. Rail Safety Week, launched by Operation Lifesaver, TriMet reminds you to pause those distractions, follow signals and take a moment to be alert and aware when walking, biking and driving across train tracks,” the agency said in a statement.
Utah Transit Authority (UTA) planned activities for the entire week, taking it to the community with a “Red Out for Rail Safety” at varsity football games in North Temple and Central Pointe areas.
You can visit the Operation Lifesaver website at https://oli.org/about-us/news/rail-safety-week-2017 to learn more about this year’s activities and see how you can get involved in 2018.
High Speed Rail Connecting Tennessee and Georgia
Georgia and Tennessee have thrown in their hats, joining California and Texas in the dream of high-speed passenger rail in the U.S. The Federal Railroad Administration recently released a “record of decision and a tier 1 environmental impact statement.” These documents address the possible economic impact as well as the possible path the rail line would take, making transportation much faster for those traveling along the I-75 corridor from the Atlanta Georgia Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to downtown Chattanooga Tennessee. If successful, the line would run 128 miles and take its passengers from Atlanta to Chattanooga in just 88 minutes.