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Daily Labor Report: Teamsters report on rail safety seeks more training, curbs on remote control

(The following article originally appeared in The Daily Labor Report on September 30, 2005, and was written by Eric Lekus.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Providing railroad employees with more training on their carriers' security plans and restricting the use of remote control train operation would make the nation's rail transportation system more secure, according to a report released by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Sept. 29.

The report, High Alert: Workers Warn of Security Gaps on Nation's Railroads, is based on a survey of more than 4,000 IBT members who work for 34 railroad companies in 46 states. The union represents approximately 70,000 rail industry employees, most of whom work for freight companies, but approximately 9,500 work for passenger rail agencies.

According to IBT's survey, 87 percent of respondents said there was no certified engineer available to assist or relieve other engineers in case of emergency or hijacking.

Meanwhile, 84 percent of respondents said they had not received training related to terrorism prevention and response in the previous 12 months. Virtually all of those IBT members surveyed (99 percent) said they had not received training specific to the monitoring of nuclear waste shipments, 62 percent said they had not been trained on their role in their railroad's emergency response plan, and 37 percent said they had not received training from their railroad on the Department of Transportation's hazardous materials placarding system.

"The results of this survey are startling and, I would have to say, somewhat frightening," John Murphy, director of the Teamsters Rail Conference, said at a Sept. 29 news conference.

Rick Inclima, director of safety for IBT's Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division, said although rail companies claim to have security plans, "the wheels come off the cart when it comes to employees." Often, they are not trained on what specific measures they are expected to take to secure their equipment, nor are they alerted to specific threats they face. As for what to do if an incident occurs, Inclima told reporters that although DOT requires that rail employees receive some training, the requirements are fairly general.

However, the Teamsters and other unions participate in a National Labor College program that has trained approximately 18,000 rail industry workers on how to respond to such incidents, according to Inclima.

Edward R. Hamberger, president of the Association of American Railroads, released a statement Sept. 29 saying the Teamsters report misrepresents the industry's safety record. For example, he said, in the last 25 years, the number of train accidents declined 64 percent, collisions dropped by 80 percent, and derailments fell by 67 percent.

"It is an attempt to bolster their bargaining position in ongoing negotiations under the auspices of the National Mediation Board," Hamberger said.

The National Carriers' Conference Committee, which bargains on behalf of CSX, Union Pacific, and other large freight railroads, currently is engaged in bargaining with seven unions, including the Teamsters, for a new contract to replace one that became amendable in January (91 DLR A-10, 5/12/05).

Dispute Over Remote Operation.

In the survey, 65 percent of respondents said the switching of at least some rail equipment in the train yards they worked in was performed by remote control. Many of the cars switched by remote control--rather than by engineers--carried hazardous materials, the report said. Seventy-four percent of respondents said the remote control devices were not kept in a secure area.

The report suggested that rail companies be required to provide more personnel to serve as a "backup" for onboard engineers, and that remote control operation be limited to trains not carrying hazardous materials.

Murphy said rail companies are moving toward remote control train operation as a way to save money. "Their rationale is that technology does it better," he said. However, "as most Americans understand there is something intrinsically wrong with that," according to Murphy, who added that taking away employee control over such operations is "taking a chance."

However, AAR cited a soon-to-be-released report by the Federal Railroad Administration finding that employee injury rates were lower when remote control technology was used in railyards than when older methods were employed. An FRA spokesman confirmed that the agency had sent AAR a letter summarizing the findings of a forthcoming report to Congress.

"The Teamsters' so-called study is nothing more than a one-sided collection of anecdotes about" remote control operations, Hamberger said in his statement.

James M. Brunkenhoefer, national legislative director for the United Transportation Union, which represents approximately 70,000 rail industry employees--including many workers involved in remote control operation--said the union still is reviewing the report. However, observing that UTU represents several times as many employees involved in remote control operations as the Teamsters, Brunkenhoefer said he was disappointed that IBT focused on that issue.

"We have our own issues and would like to handle them our way," he said, adding that UTU defers to IBT on issues involving truckers and airlines, even though it also represents a few workers in those industries.

In response to other survey questions:

-- 63 percent of respondents said their train or equipment had been delayed or left unattended for an extended period of time prior to or during their tour of duty;

-- 56 percent said they could not secure the train cab against unauthorized access while it was occupied, and 89 percent could not secure it while it was unoccupied;

-- 96 percent said there was not visible police presence in the railyard on the day they were surveyed; and

-- 59 percent said trains carrying hazardous materials had passed their work area the day they were surveyed.

In the report, IBT proposed that the Transportation Security Administration increase minimum requirements for inspections of critical rail infrastructure, establish strict compliance standards, tighten rules on storage of hazardous materials, and require that remote control devices be secured. It also suggested that all railroad subcontractors and their employees receive standardized training and undergo the same background checks as rail company workers.

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.) both spoke at the news conference about how attacks on passenger rail systems in London, Madrid, Tokyo, and other localities should make it clear that more needs to be done to improve rail security. "There is a trend among terrorist groups to hit rail," Lynch said. He has introduced legislation (H.R. 1109) that would provide $4.5 billion over five years to improve rail security.

In addition, Lynch told BNA that because much of the nation's passenger rail system uses freight tracks, improving security for one system will improve safeguards for the other. For example, adding surveillance systems and training rail workers could benefit both passenger and freight system users, he said.

But Brunkenhoefer said that in considering the Teamsters' report and other calls for improved rail security, Congress must look at the whole transportation sector. Otherwise, if it imposes new costs on rail carriers only, some cargo may be moved to other--and what he called less safe--modes of transportation, including trucks, barges, and pipelines.

Darrin Kayser, a TSA spokesman, told BNA Sept. 29 that the agency had not had a chance to review the report. However, he added that TSA already had a number of initiatives under way to improve freight rail security. For example, he said, it is working with infrastructure protection experts in the Department of Homeland Security to improve security for a seven-mile corridor through Washington, D.C., and has completed vulnerability assessments of rail lines through high-threat urban areas. Its goal is to develop mechanisms to ensure a swift response if a threat to one of those lines materializes, Kayser said.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

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