Today's Headlines


Watchdog group questions worth of the Heartland Flyer

WASHINGTON -- Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), America's largest taxpayer watchdog group, severely criticized a recent Amtrak decision to open passenger rail service between Fort Worth, Texas and Oklahoma City, Okla. The 180- mile route, dubbed "The Heartland Flyer," by Amtrak officials, is expected to lose more than $14 million during its first three years of service.

"The Heartland Flyer is the latest example of Amtrak's blatant disregard for the interests of taxpayers," remarked CAGW President Thomas A. Schatz. "At a time when Amtrak is supposed to be weaning itself off government subsidies, the railroad continues to squander money on unprofitable and unnecessary routes."

According to Amtrak, The Heartland Flyer will be one of the most heavily subsidized trains in the railroad's 29-year history. To provide service between Forth Worth and Oklahoma City, Amtrak expects to pay $228 per passenger on the Flyer -- $204 over and above the $24 ticket fee customers will pay to travel the route. The cost to taxpayers for this subsidy will be $4.8 million in the service's first year alone.

"It's hard to imagine, but it would actually cost taxpayers less money to rent a limo and drive Amtrak passengers back forth between Oklahoma City and Forth Worth," noted Schatz. "Roundtrip limousine rental between the two cities costs $450 -- six dollars less than the cost of the train ride. And if you take the limo, you can bring five friends along for free!"

Despite its cost, The Heartland Flyer will be considerably slower than a similar service provided by the Santa Fe Railroad in the early 1950s. "Would you believe that The Heartland Flyer will actually take 40 minutes longer than the same service did nearly a half century ago?" Schatz declared "Maybe it should be called 'The Heartland Crawler' instead."

Amtrak has a long history of steaming in the red. According to a 1998 General Accounting Office report, only one of Amtrak's 40 existing lines operates at a profit. In fiscal 1997, Amtrak lost approximately $47 for every passenger served by the railroad. The Congressional Budget Office reports that Amtrak has "consumed more than $20 billion in federal subsidies since its creation" in 1970.

CSX and NS are not as efficient as expected

What we have here is a failure to synergize, according to the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette.

So far, the $10.3 billion breakup of Conrail hasn't produced the efficiencies CSX and Norfolk Southern predicted when they carved up the railroad June 1.

Customers of the two railroads, who all remember the logjam that followed the 1996 merger of Union Pacific and Southern Pacific, are reporting delays up and down the line.

CSX and Norfolk Southern officials say their problems are nowhere near as dire as those in the earlier merger. They are working hard to solve the problems and remain convinced they'll eventually realize the benefits they had in mind.

Some industry officials aren't so sure. Some of them are convinced problems are getting worse, not better and that bigger problems are lying ahead.

In the Pittsburgh area, those suffering include not only big shippers like U.S. Steel and PPG Industries but also individual car buyers. Two area Honda dealers report long delays in shipments of Honda CR-V's, Japanese-made cars shipped in by rail from the West Coast.

U.S. Steel spokesman John Armstrong said there have been minor delays at the company's Irvin plant in West Mifflin. There are more serious delays at the company's Gary (Ind.) Works, North America's largest steel plant, but Armstrong said even those haven't caused serious problems.

In some cases they've had to resort to trucks in order to get the product to customers," he said.

The biggest problem at Warren, Ohio-based WCI Steel is a shortage of rail cars.

"Right now, it's an inconvenience," said spokesman Tim Roberts. "It is not improving though and if it continues, it could become a serious problem."

PPG spokesman John Ruch said there have been delays in rail shipments at glass plants in Pennsylvania and Ohio and at a chemicals plant near Montreal. Norfolk Southern's inability to move traffic through its Toledo and Cleveland yards has slowed shipments of raw materials to the Meadville, Crawford County glass plant, he said.

While some glitches were to be expected in such a massive undertaking, PPG had hoped the transition would be much smoother, given all the planning the two railroads have done since first proposing the breakup two years ago, Ruch said.

PGT Trucking of Monaca has seen an increase in outbound shipments of steel from Pittsburgh because of the rail delays. Spokesman Kevin McGavick said the increase has come from deliveries over 500 miles, which is about the distance a truck can cover in one day. Steel companies typically use rail if they're shipping farther than that, McGavick said.

A transportation manager at one steel producer blamed the railroads' computers. The official, who asked not to be identified, said that's why Norfolk Southern can't tell in many instances if a car is loaded or empty.

Customers trying to resolve that and other problems over the phones have swamped customer service lines, causing delays there as well, the manager said. He said railroad officials are telling him to use trucks for shipments that absolutely, positively have to get there on time.

"The answer isn't to supplement with trucks forever. There aren't enough trucks out there," said the manager, who sees no sign of things improving despite the railroads' best efforts.

"You will have shutdown situations if this continues."

CSX and Norfolk South control virtually all rail traffic east of the Mississippi River. CSX has a 22,700-mile network in 23 states, the District of Columbia and parts of Canada. Norfolk Southern has about 21,600 miles of track in 22 states, the District of Columbia and Ontario.

Norfolk Southern Chairman David R. Goode hailed June 1 as "the beginning of a new age in transportation." But two weeks later, he conceded that computer glitches were causing backups, delays and other problems.

Norfolk Southern spokesman Rudy Husband said there were indications "things are slowly getting better." Traffic through Norfolk Southern's yard in Conway is heavy, but has been moving a little bit better this week, Husband said.

CSX spokesman Robert Sullivan said comparisons to the Union Pacific-Southern Pacific fiasco are unwarranted. Railroad officials believe most of the major problems will be ironed out by July 4. "Are we where we want to be? No, but we're getting there," Sullivan said.

Yesterday in Washington, railroad officials said conditions should soon improve.

Edward Emmett, president of the National Industrial Transportation League, said the railroads indicated at a four-hour, closed-door meeting that service along the former Conrail routes should return to normal by mid-July.

Nevada files petition to have nuclear transport laws revised

CARSON CITY, Nev. -- On behalf of Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn, Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa today filed a petition with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission asking that the existing regulations governing the security and safety of spent nuclear fuel transportation be reexamined and strengthened.

Specifically, the petition seeks to have the NRC reevaluate its requirements for safeguarding spent fuel shipments in light of the changing nature of threats involving domestic terrorism and sabotage, including the greater accessibility of new and powerful armor piercing weapons.

"It has been nearly two decades since the Commission reviewed the regulations designed to ensure the physical protection of spent fuel shipments, and we believe that many of the assumptions these rules are based upon no longer reflect real world conditions," explained Del Papa.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has the responsibility, under federal law, to certify that shipping containers and other elements of the transportation system used to ship spent nuclear fuel and high level radioactive waste on highways and railroads can, in fact, protect the public and the environment from the very real and evolving threat of attacks by terrorists. These rules have not been revised since the 1970s and do not take into account the availability of modern weapons and delivery systems that could be used by terrorists and others not only on the shipments themselves, but also on bridges, tunnels and rail lines throughout the country.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Energy and commercial shipping container manufacturers are striving to place larger payloads (a four-fold increase in the amount of spent fuel) in nuclear waste shipping casks in order to reduce the number of shipments required. However, the use of these new, larger casks may result in weaker containers due to the need to meet legal weight restrictions for use on highways and rail lines, thereby making shipments even more vulnerable to attack.

Del Papa pointed out that the purpose of the petition is to encourage the NRC to conduct needed risk and consequence assessments of existing safeguards and security regulations to determine if changes need to be made, publish new proposed rules for public comment, and ultimately make necessary modifications to the rules.

"I would encourage other states, local governments, Indian tribes, and public interest groups concerned about the security and safety of nuclear materials transportation to join with us in this rulemaking process. In our opinion the current regulations expose the public - not just in Nevada, but in almost every state in the country - to potentially unacceptable levels of risk when it comes to the transportation of highly radioactive materials."

Authorities bombarded with inquiries about serial killer

HOUSTON (AP) -- Police departments across the nation with unsolved slayings are contacting Texas authorities and asking them about the rail-riding fugitive who has been linked to eight killings in three states.

"We have had some other law enforcement agencies who have asked to compare, and there are some comparisons going on as we speak," Don K. Clark, the FBI agent leading the Houston-based task force pursuing Rafael Resendez-Ramirez, said Thursday.

Resendez-Ramirez, a 39-year-old Mexican, is wanted for questioning in connection with five killings in Texas, one in Kentucky and two earlier this month in Illinois, where he faces capital murder charges.

Investigators believe the tattooed ex-convict is making his way from town to town by hopping freight trains. All of the slayings took place near railroad tracks, and most of the victims were bludgeoned. Fingerprints have tied Resendez-Ramirez to at least some of the killings.

The FBI said he was last reported seen in Louisville, Ky., a week ago. Investigators are stepping up efforts in Kentucky and the El Paso, Texas, border area, where he has relatives.

The task force tip line has received nearly 1,200 calls, including several reported sightings of the drifter and inquiries from law enforcement officers around the country about possible connections to cold cases.

The last time such calls came into Texas was in the early 1980s, when authorities coaxed a confession to more than 600 slayings from a drifter named Henry Lee Lucas. Lucas eventually recanted as evidence mounted that he had lied in just about all of the cases.

Jim Mattox, a former Texas attorney general and critic of the Lucas investigation, said police must not abruptly conclude that past slayings near railroad tracks were Resendez-Ramirez's work.

"I hope they don't start pinning on him every crime that happens near a railroad track," Mattox said.

Clark said that won't happen: "Law enforcement agencies are responsible."

Detective Pat Barr of Columbus, Ohio, said he thought Resendez-Ramirez could be a suspect in the 1994 rape-slaying of an Ohio State student until he learned that the details didn't match Resendez-Ramirez's alleged pattern.

Police have declined to reveal the specific clues the killer tends to leave behind.

Wise County Sheriff Phil Ryan said authorities with cases that fit Resendez-Ramirez's profile should check out the facts without rushing to judgment.

"I feel sorry for whoever does catch him, because they'll be bombarded with requests for DNA and other evidence," Ryan said.

IAM, UAW and USW put merger on hold

DETROIT (AP) -- The big merger of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers with the United Auto Workers and United Steelworkers of America won't happen anytime soon.

The unions have put the merger on hold indefinitely, but say talks will continue to combine the UAW and Steelworkers unions.

In a brief statement, the presidents of the three unions said the UAW and Steelworkers unions have more comparable organizational structures and would "take the next step in the unification process by conducting immediate discussions to join their two unions together."

"During this process, the three unions will continue to meet and continue their ultimate goal of reaching unification of all three unions," concluded the statement, which was posted on the Machinists union Web site Wednesday.

Machinists spokesman Robert Kalaski said Thursday that differences in how the three unions elect their leaders was a major factor in the decision to delay the merger of all three. The Machinists have direct elections of their officials; the UAW and Steelworkers unions do not.

Kalaski said leaders of all three unions realized at least a year ago that their initial goal to merge by 2000 was unrealistic.

"It's not dead," he said. "There's still some things in the pot and more going in. If they don't do it by 2000, there's nothing wrong with 2003 or 2004. But we're going to do it right."

Talks to merge the three unions began in July 1995. With more than 2 million members, the merged union would be the nation's largest. The merger was seen as a way to increase the unions' clout and eliminate duplicate efforts in organizing and lobbying. But it faced many difficulties from the start.

"It isn't a simple process to merge three organizations this different," said Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California-Berkeley. "There are differences that span from the presidents down to the local unions."

Shaiken said the unions are cooperating more than before the talks began, especially in their political activities. "So even though the former merger may be on hold, they're working together on key issues. And each of the three is doing well on its own, so you don't have desperation fueling the merger."

Kalaski denied that the larger size of the UAW strike fund was a factor in the decision to delay the merger. "All three unions have very healthy strike funds in proportion to their membership," he said.

Calls to UAW spokesmen in Detroit were not returned.

Milestone victory in North Carolina textile mill

KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (AP) -- Labor leaders say the vote in favor of union representation by North Carolina mill workers marks a milestone in the effort to organize the Southern textile industry.

Workers at six Fieldcrest Cannon mills apparently voted to accept representation by the Union of Needletrades Industrial and Textile Employees, or UNITE. Four previous attempts since 1974 to unionize the workers had failed, but the union finally declared victory on Thursday.

AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney called it the greatest union victory in a Southern textile mill.

North Carolina has nearly 167,000 textile workers - the nation's biggest such workforce - in a state where the overall level of union membership is just 4.2 percent. The national level is 13.5 percent.

"The unions, when it came to North Carolina, used to say, 'Why bother?'" said University of South Carolina history professor Tom Terrill.

The past six decades has seen the number of workers decline steadily due to modernization, increased imports and the shifting of jobs overseas.

"I've been talking to a lot of clothing manufacturers, and one of the problems they bring up all the time is the shortage of skilled labor," said Ian Taplin, a Wake Forest University professor who studies labor-management issues. "This could make management more tolerant about considering a union."

The National Labor Relations Board still must validate the 2,270-2,102 outcome. The union and the board have challenged a total of 285 votes.

"There's going to be massive discussion about these contested votes," said Chuck Hansen, chairman of Fieldcrest Cannon's parent company, Pillowtex Corp. "I think when it's all resolved, the vote will come back for the company."

The top election issues concerned job changes that have accompanied $50 million in added automation since 1997, when Dallas-based Pillowtex bought Fieldcrest for $700 million. Union organizers said change was displacing workers.

This time, UNITE did a good job of sizing up what it needed to do to win, including the enlisting of young, college-educated organizers, Taplin said.

The union is "good at alerting the public about what is happening," he said. "And they let the government know when there are violations."

Union organizing has a storied history here. Twenty-five years ago, a North Carolina woman's organizing efforts at a textile mill 200 miles away inspired the movie "Norma Rae."

"I knew it eventually would happen, but I didn't think it would happen in my lifetime," said Tracy Moody, a Fieldcrest employee.

Fieldcrest Cannon makes towels, sheets and comforters under the names Royal Velvet, Cannon, Touch of Class and Charisma. Pillowtex makes bed pillows, mattress pads, blankets and down comforters for the Ralph Lauren, Disney and Martha Stewart lines.


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