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President Pierce urges aid for Amtrak/commuters, condemns PSR at Senate hearing

INDEPENDENCE, Ohio, October 21 — BLET National President Dennis R. Pierce testified today before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation at a hearing titled, “Passenger and Freight Rail: The Current Status of the Rail Network and the Track Ahead.” The hearing examined the current state of America’s passenger and freight rail network, including impacts of COVID-19, and legislative considerations for surface transportation reauthorization legislation.

President Pierce delivered the testimony in his capacity as President of the Teamsters Rail Conference. To address the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, President Pierce urged the Senate to provide emergency relief for Amtrak and commuter railroads and to adopt legislation that would improve the health, safety and sanitation standards for all railroad workers.

President Pierce also testified about the negative impact of so-called Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) on railroad workers, communities and shippers. He described it as a dangerous, job-killing business model that puts lives at risk by putting profits ahead of safety. President Pierce concluded his testimony by urging the Senate to adopt legislation as part of the upcoming surface transportation reauthorization that would address PSR and return the rail industry to serving the public instead of Wall Street. Additionally, the surface transportation reauthorization should include rail safety legislation that would mandate two-person train crews, President Pierce said.

COVID’S Impact

President Pierce praised railroaders for answering the call as essential workers during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. However, he was critical of the industry for failing to recall furloughed workers as freight traffic has improved.

“I am pleased to report that the industry’s essential employees have answered the call and worked tirelessly to serve our economy. But our members have paid a heavy price. Record numbers of freight workers were furloughed when traffic cratered, on top of historic furloughs that occurred prior to the pandemic. Despite sharply rebounding traffic, recalls have been insufficient to meet demand,” President Pierce said.

Those lucky enough to avoid furlough have been forced to deal with unprecedented health and safety concerns because of COVID, placing them and their families at risk.

“The provision of PPE — and safe and sanitary lodging and meal facilities — have been inconsistent at best. Sadly, the Executive Branch agencies responsible for workplace safety still haven’t stepped up to the plate. So we urge the Senate to pass S. 3884 — the ‘Essential Transportation Employee Safety Act’ — and S. 3677 — the ‘COVID-19 Every Worker Protection Act,’” he said.

COVID has hit Amtrak and public transit particularly hard. President Pierce urged the Senate to consider emergency funding to help keep passenger and commuter trains rolling.

“Amtrak is implementing tri-weekly service, and is about to furlough 25% of its Engineers. Commuter agencies also are looking at further service reductions and furloughs. The House has teed up additional emergency relief in the Heroes Act, which if passed by the Senate, should provide these railroads and their workers with this much needed help,” President Pierce said.

PSR: A Job-Killing Business Model

President Pierce also condemned Precision Scheduled Railroading, the job-killing business model that has been implemented by American railroads.

“… PSR [is] a business model that rewards Wall Street at the expense of everyone else. PSR’s across-the-board and ruthless cost-cutting has produced historically high unemployment rates. Between 2014 and 2019 — long before COVID — employment on the four largest Class I railroads was cut 17%, with nearly 30,000 jobs lost,” Pierce said. “America needs a railroad industry that balances rail operations, shipper needs, effective maintenance, safety, employee and manpower concerns, and the industry’s long-term health. PSR has cut much deeper than just eliminating fat; it has cut into muscle and bone. PSR may be good for the bottom line, but it is bad for the nation’s shippers, American consumers, and the workers who move the nation’s freight.”

Not only is it a job killer, PSR puts profits ahead of safety and puts railroad workers and America’s cities and towns at risk.

“PSR has led to deferred maintenance — the closing of many yards and repair shops —a constant state of chaos as operating crew bases are relocated to reduce the number of crews needed for long-distance trains — and 2 to 3 mile-long trains becoming the norm. Trains are routinely operated that exceed the capacity of the infrastructure to accommodate them without significant operational delays, at the shipper’s expense. And trains are being operated with lengths that exceed the capacity of FRA-required safety technology,” President Pierce testified.

Surface Transportation Reauthorization

President Pierce suggested to the Senate that the problems caused by PSR could be addressed in the surface transportation reauthorization process.

“These problems should be addressed in the reauthorization process. We urge the Committee to investigate whether the public interest — as envisioned by Staggers and the 1990s merger and control decisions — is being served by PSR. GAO should be tasked with studying changes in operating and scheduling practices as a result of PSR, including the metrics detailed in my written testimony,” he said.

President Pierce concluded his oral testimony by urging the Senate to help protect rail safety by enacting legislation that would mandate two-person train crews.

“We also believe that the reauthorization bill should include S. 1979 — the ‘Safe Freight Act’ — which would put a halt to the industry’s attempt to eliminate jobs with a technology that cannot — and is not designed to — replace safety-critical train crew members,” he said.

Additional Witnesses

Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) serves as Chair of the Committee, and Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) serves as Chair of the Subcommittee on Transportation and Safety. In addition to President Pierce, additional witnesses included: (Panel 1) William Flynn, Amtrak President and Chief Executive Officer, and Paul Tuss, Executive Director, Bear Paw Development Corporation and Member, Montana Economic Developers Association; and (Panel 2) Frank Chirumbole, Vice President Global Supply Chain, Olin Corporation on behalf of American Chemistry Council, Randy Gordon, President and Chief Executive Officer, National Grain and Feed Association, Kent Fountain, Chairman, National Cotton Council, and Ian Jefferies, President and Chief Executive Officer, Association of American Railroads.

A copy of President Pierce’s written testimony is available for download as a PDF.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

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