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By Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor
Rail worker fatigue has been a hot safety topic for years. And last month, the issue got hotter. The House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials held a hearing on fatigue, and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) proposed the first changes to rail workers’ hours of service (HOS) regulations in 100 years.
A few days before the FRA announced its proposal, National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Mark Rosenker testified at the hearing that fatigue could be best addressed if Congress gave the FRA statutory authority to revise workers’ hours of service.
The FRA is attempting to obtain that authority through legislation. Last month, the agency submitted to Congress the Federal Railroad Safety Accountability and Improvement Act, which for the first time would authorize the FRA to regulate workers’ HOS.
The legislation would replace railroad HOS laws, which were enacted in 1907, with comprehensive and “scientifically based” regulations that address fatigue, the FRA said. Similar to how HOS standards are set for airline pilots and truck drivers, the FRA would set maximum on-duty or minimum off-duty hours for train crews, dispatchers and signal maintainers.
Enacting new law not enough, FRA says
A FRA Railroad Safety Advisory Committee comprising railroad managers, labor representatives and other stakeholders would review fatigue issues and develop recommendations on new HOS limits based on scientific evidence.
“Railroads have tried to take care of fatigue management themselves,” says FRA Administrator Joseph Boardman, referring to efforts in the 1990s and early 2000s. “We need to take a better approach to reduce risk, and you can’t do that by changing a law alone. We need a fatigue management plan and hours-of-service law that work together.”
A fatigue management plan should address workers’ opportunity to rest and not just the number of days off, he says.
“If someone has three days off, they might not manage that time well to make sure they’re eating and resting enough,” says Boardman. “If they only have 12 hours off, they have to manage that time.”
Recent scientific analyses have found a fatigued worker’s “state of effectiveness” is significantly reduced — perhaps 60 percent or less, he says.
At the subcommittee hearing, an intermodal industry official cited the need for a fatigue management plan that sets optimal off-duty hours.
“The overriding principle that should guide decisions is the need to address not just the number of hours worked, but the number of hours off between duty periods,” said National Center for Intermodal Transportation Co-Director Patrick Sherry, adding that the plan should be evaluated by an independent panel and include an accountability mechanism.
Railroads are “amenable to a thorough review of the HOS act” to determine which changes might be appropriate, said Association of American Railroads President and Chief Executive Officer Ed Hamberger during his subcommittee hearing testimony.
AAR: proceed with caution
However, a single set of mandates can’t account for varying circumstances at individual railroads, collectively bargained labor contracts must be addressed, and non-productive work/rest rules could impair roads’ ability to provide efficient and cost-effective service, said Hamberger.
“Railroads urge extreme caution in amending the [law],” he said. “If not carefully thought out, new fatigue-related regulatory or statutory mandates may not achieve the goals they are designed to achieve.”
Rail labor officials also are open to HOS changes. At the hearing, one official said fatigue still poses a safety threat to rail workers and the public.
“There is no question in our minds that safety degradation because of fatigue is a ticking time bomb in the rail industry,” said Tom Pontolillo, director of regulatory affairs for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, adding that the National Transportation Safety Board has identified crew fatigue as the cause of numerous accidents.
The FRA bill will be assigned to and considered by House and Senate committees. But it’ll be at least a couple of years before any regulatory changes are enacted if Congress passes the bill, says Boardman.
For now, it’s a positive sign that fatigue will be addressed from all rail safety stakeholders’ vantage points, he says.
“We need railroads, labor, government and the public to work together on this,” says Boardman. “This is something I’m committed to and will work hard at.”
After more than three years of planning, coordinating and fundraising, Chicago’s CREATE program is entering the construction phase. Last month, the program’s public and private partners announced the federal government released the first $25 million of an initial $100 million commitment to the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency, or CREATE, program.
Now, the partners — six Class Is, the Northeast Illinois Regional Commuter Railroad Corp. (Metra), state of Illinois and city of Chicago — plan to begin construction on seven projects later this year.
Designed to ease freight- and transit-rail bottlenecks, and improve grade crossing safety, CREATE calls for establishing five rail corridors (including one primarily for passenger trains), grade separating 25 crossings, and building six flyovers and underpasses.
“This is good news not just for Chicago ... but for the entire nation,” said Association of American Railroads President and Chief Executive Officer Ed Hamberger in a prepared statement. “Some 1,200 freight and passenger trains a day go through Chicago.”
SEVEN PROJECTS ON SLATE
The projects scheduled for construction include: adding a second rail connection in Melrose Park between a Union Pacific Railroad and Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad Co. (IHB) line; upgrading a secondary track segment to a main track in LaGrange; installing new crossovers and signal equipment on a double-track section in Broadview; extending a rail connection between BNSF Railway Co. and IHB in McCook; installing a computerized signal system in three locations; installing an additional mainline track and computerized signal system in Chicago’s 12th Ward; and upgrading track and signals, and reconfiguring an interlocking in the city’s 14th Ward.
Under an initial $330 million, three-year funding pact reached in fall 2006, the federal government authorized $100 million for CREATE (as part of SAFETEA-LU), the state of Illinois committed $100 million, the six Class Is agreed to provide a combined $100 million and the city of Chicago pledged $30 million. First proposed in June 2003, the program is estimated to cost about $1.5 billion.
Currently, eight grade separation projects are in the design or construction phase, and another seven CREATE projects will get under way in 2008, the partners said.
“CREATE stands out as a prime example of what a public-private partnership can accomplish,” said Hamberger.
— Jeff Stagl
FRA says ‘nay’ to DM&E’s $2.3 billion federal loan
Railroad will assess funding alternatives for $6 billion PRB project, Schieffer says
Last month, the Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Railroad Corp. (DM&E) hit another bump on its long, winding road to the Powder River Basin. A large one.
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) denied the railroad’s $2.3 billion Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing loan application because the loan posed an “unacceptable risk to federal taxpayers,” FRA Administrator Joseph Boardman in a prepared statement.
FRA officials questioned the DM&E’s “highly leveraged” financial position and ability to handle potential cost overruns and schedule delays, and the loan amount relative to the railroad’s size, said Boardman.
“There remained too high a risk concerning the railroad’s ability to repay the loan even with an appropriate combination of credit risk premiums and collateral,” he said.
The loan would have helped the DM&E finance its $6 billion project — first proposed more than eight years ago — which calls for a new 262-mile line into the Wyoming coal basin and upgrades to 600 other track miles.
“While the DM&E is disappointed ... we expect to move forward and will spend some time assessing alternatives to accomplish that objective,” said DM&E President and Chief Executive Officer Kevin Schieffer in a statement.
A private matter
One option might be to privately finance the entire project. Days before the ruling, Schieffer said the DM&E had received interest from private financiers regarding project costs beyond the loan amount.
However, a private equity deal’s cost basis could be higher than using Uncle Sam to foot a large part of the bill, says independent rail industry analyst Tony Hatch.
Project opponents are glad Uncle Sam is out of the funding equation. U.S. Sens. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) — who last month introduced a bill that would prevent the U.S. Department of Transportation from issuing a loan of $1 billion or more without congressional approval — issued a statement saying the decision “should send a signal that this new Congress will be exercising oversight and demanding accountability.”
In addition, the decision is appropriate because the project didn’t address traffic and safety concerns expressed by the Mayo Clinic and Rochester, Minn., said Minn. Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
With or without the RRIF loan, there are more than 100 project supporters, including farm groups and utilities, who are relying on the DM&E to proceed, said Schieffer.
“This project is too important to the future of our company, regional rail transportation, and the many supporters in the agriculture and energy sectors,” he said.
— Jeff Stagl
On Feb. 24, Canadian National Railway Co. and United Transportation Union-Canada reached a tentative contract agreement — with “tentative” very much the operative word at press time.
As of Feb. 26, the union planned to continue a strike — which UTU-Canada launched Feb. 10 after contract negotiations broke down over a disagreement on wage increases — until a ratification vote is tallied on March 26. Union officials encouraged members to return to work in the meantime.
“We are hopeful that this will greatly reduce the possibility of the Canadian government continuing to move forward on back-to-work legislation,” said UTU Canadian vice presidents and chief negotiators John Armstrong and Robert Sharpe in a prepared statement, referring to a return-to-work measure Canadian Labor Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn introduced to Parliament Feb. 23.
But as of press time, it was unclear how many workers would return to work. CN management personnel continued to fill in for striking workers.
Wanted: new contract
The union, which represents 2,800 CN conductors and yard-service employees in Canada, is seeking a new contract. The previous pact expired Dec. 31.
Prior to reaching the tentative agreement last month, the parties’ bargaining talks took a turn.
CN officials on Feb. 21 acknowledged the need for federal legislation to end the strike because they were “confronted by intense internal divisions” within the union, according to a CN prepared statement.
Two days earlier, United Transportation Union International officials removed four UTU-Canada general chairmen from office for “issuing the strike without authority” from the international office, which violated the UTU’s constitution, and attempting to negotiate a merger with the Teamsters, according to a UTU statement.
UTU International officials then assigned two new negotiators — Armstrong and Sharpe — to the bargaining table.
“We believe government legislation is warranted at this time given internal UTU divisions that have hampered the union’s bargaining efforts,” said CN President and Chief Executive Officer E. Hunter Harrison.
As of Feb. 26, government officials planned to hold off on issuing back-to-work legislation pending the ratification vote’s outcome.