October 31, 2014

Predictable crew schedules not radical

By UTU International President Mike Futhey

For more years than I care to count, we having been telling the carriers that if we couldn’t come up with a mutually acceptable solution at the bargaining table to the problem of availability policies and train-crew fatigue that we were going to ask Congress to impose a solution.

And still the carriers dithered, placing profits ahead of safety and ignoring the quality of life and safety threats of 30-day availability policies, seemingly never-ending limbo time, rolling the dice on circadian rhythms with wild swings in start times, and assuming human beings could maintain situational awareness as their cumulative sleep deficits mounted.

We provided the carriers with exhaustive evidence of train crews being called to work in a fatigued condition; and reminded the carriers that sleep scientists have concluded that going to work fatigued is equivalent to going to work drunk.

Even in the face of horrific accidents involving deadly hazmat releases and NTSB findings with regard to crew fatigue, the carriers continued to ignore our pleas to negotiate a solution to the fatigue problem. The carriers refused to negotiate.

So we went to Congress in the fall of 2008 which enacted the most far-reaching rail safety bill in decades. It was our only relief. The law didn’t give us everything we wanted, but it is a good, overdue and necessary law.

Most troubling now is that even with the new safety law’s changes in hours of service and limbo time elimination, the carriers continue to resist providing train and engine service employees with predictable starting times.

How can it be that an industry so fully computerized can’t provide its operating crews with predictable starting times?

The fact is, the railroad industry can.

In fact, on Canadian National, which Wall Street analysts say is the most efficient North American railroad, senior management is committed to train scheduling. CN CEO Hunter Harrison considers this good business, safe business and appropriate labor-management policy.

We are now negotiating with CN in hopes we can reach agreement permitting CN and the UTU jointly to petition the Federal Railroad Administration for a pilot project — under provisions of the new safety law — to demonstrate every railroad can efficiently provide train and engine-service employees with start and stop times within a predictable range of hours.

We stand willing to negotiate with any carrier a similar joint petition to the FRA for such a pilot project if that carrier is agreeable to structured start times.

Our objective is a changed culture that reduces employee fatigue, fully eliminates limbo time, assures situational awareness of all crew members, improves our members’ quality of life, boosts customer service, and contributes positively to each carrier’s bottom line.

It is high time to bring the railroad industry into the 21st century. This pilot project has the potential to do just that.