BLE, IBT rally for remote control safety

More than 300 protesters demand FRA issue safety regulations

Carrying picket signs and chanting "remote control has got to go," more than 300 union members rallied in Washington D.C. on March 11 to protest lax federal oversight of remote controlled locomotives.

Members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and labor leaders representing more than 14 million union members picketed outside of the Federal Railroad Administration's headquarters for more than an hour. The rally was organized jointly by the BLE and IBT.

In addition to the rally on the front steps of its headquarters, the FRA received two letters on March 11 condemning its inactivity on the remote control issue - one from the AFL-CIO's Transportation Trades Department and one from Senator Edward M. Kennedy.

BLE International President Don Hahs was the opening speaker at the rally, followed by AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka, and AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department Executive Director Ed Wytkind. The final two speakers were James P. Hoffa, General President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and Pat Friend, National President of the Association of Flight Attendants.

BLE members representing all major Class 1 railroads attended the rally and came from as far away as California, Texas, Oregon and Montana. Many members of the BLE's Grand International Auxiliary (GIA) were also in attendance.

Leo McCann, President of the American Train Dispatchers Department-BLE, participated in the rally, along with Mac Fleming, President of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, and Dan Pickett, President of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen. Additional ATDD, BMWE and BRS representatives also rallied with the rail chiefs. Other rally participants represented the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Sheetmetal Workers International Association, and RRESQ.

BLE President Hahs said more than 40 accidents related to remote control technology have taken place in the past two years. He also said that a trainman near Syracuse, N.Y., was killed in the line of duty while working a remote control job for CSX Transportation in February. President Hahs then asked the question, "How many injuries and deaths will occur before the FRA acts?"

Secretary-Treasurer Trumka condemned the FRA's unwillingness to meet with BLE leaders to discuss remote control. He said that the BLE was not alone in its fight to improve remote control safety, telling the enthusiastic crowd that remote control was not a BLE issue - it was a labor issue. In terms of remote control safety, Secretary-Treasurer Trumka said at least 10 U.S. communities have adopted safety resolutions calling for a ban on remote control and/or improved remote control safety regulations from the FRA.

TTD Executive Director Wytkind informed the crowd that the TTD had sent a letter to the FRA that morning asking for an emergency order to immediately stop the use of remote control locomotives until rigorous, enforceable federal rules were established.

"We have seen accident after accident while the FRA has simply allowed carriers to use this technology without any set of rules or sufficient oversight," the letter read.

In his speech, Wytkind told the FRA, "Your silence tells railroad workers that their safety isn't a priority. Your silence must end."

In addition to the TTD letter, the FRA also received a letter on March 11 from Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA). Senator Kennedy's letter stated, "I am deeply concerned about the growing threat to worker and public safety from the use of remote control technology in locomotive operations It is time for the Federal Railroad Administration to act." Senator Kennedy also noted that BLE petitioned the FRA for rulemaking on the use of remote control on November 17, 2000, and has yet to receive a response.

Teamsters President Hoffa gave a rousing speech about the importance of unions working together to achieve safety goals. He also condemned the FRA for failing to fulfill its role as safety watchdog in the railroad industry.

"The government must not ignore public safety and the rights of railroad workers," he said. "Railroading is a craft, whose professional functions cannot be surrendered to a machine."

AFA President Friend received an ovation after telling the crowd how the FRA's counterpart in the airline industry - the Federal Airline Administration - scrapped plans to fly planes by remote control in the wake of September 11.

National security and the threat of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil was a common thread among all speeches.

"We hear a lot about homeland security these days," BLE President Hahs said. "When locomotives are controlled by radio signal with a remote transmitter, you have to believe that if terrorists wanted to take control of an unmanned locomotive, they could obtain a transmitter. Given the hazardous and nuclear cargoes in many rail yards around the country, an unmanned locomotive, controlled remotely, could become a deadly weapon."

Numerous media outlets covered the event, including the Chicago Tribune, Bloomberg, Reuters, and several independent media outlets.



© 2003 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers