WASHINGTON — The single most important action Congress and the Federal Railroad Administration can take to improve rail safety — especially in the movement of hazardous materials — is to eliminate train-crew fatigue and provide predictable start times for train crews.
That was the message delivered April 7 to the House Railroad Subcommittee by UTU National Legislative Director James Stem. The subcommittee met to learn more about rail hazmat safety.
“The unpredictable work schedules of safety critical operating employees in the railroad industry has and continues to be the root cause of the fatigue problems that have placed many releases of hazardous materials on the front pages of our newspapers,” Stem told the subcommittee.
Although the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA) provides for 10 hours of undisturbed rest between work assignments, “the application is misplaced because it does nothing to improve the predictability of reporting times nor does it allow employees the opportunity to plan their rest before reporting for duty,” Stem said.
“One small improvement that will make a tremendous difference in the safety for all train operations is simply to move the required 10 hours of undisturbed rest from immediately following service to immediately preceding service,” Stem said.
“The minimum of 10 hours of notification before reporting for 12 hours or more of safety critical service will allow operating employees to get their proper rest prior to reporting for duty so they can safety and alertly operate their train while on duty.
“An even greater safety enhancement would be to assign regular start times for each crew, or at a minimum require that crews be notified before going off duty of the time they must report back for service,” he said.
Stem told the subcommittee that many railroads “have worked hard since RSIA was passed to develop new software programs to enable their operations to deny the required rest days for employees. Many employees are required to observe their only day off while laying over in a one-star hotel at the away from home terminal.
“The itemized six-and-two and seven-and-three work-rest schedules in the RSIA remain a dream for 95 percent of our freight operating employees,” Stem said.
The UTU’s national legislative director also stressed a need for more frequent track inspections. “Timely track inspections by qualified track inspectors should be conducted with a frequency directly proportional to the amount of traffic passing over a track segment,” Stem told the subcommittee.
Stem provided the subcommittee, on behalf of the UTU and its members, a list of 24 specific recommendations to reduce crew fatigue:
- Railroad employees covered by the hours of service law shall be provided a predictable and defined work/rest period.
- A 10-hour call for all unassigned road service. This provision would require the 10 hours of undisturbed rest be provided immediately prior to performing covered service instead of immediately following service.
- All yard service assignments with defined start times will be covered by the same provisions that now apply to passenger and commuter rail.
- All yardmaster assignments will be HOS-covered service under the freight employees’ rule.
- The FRA shall issue regulations within 12 months to require all deadhead transportation in excess of a certain number of hours to be counted as time on duty and a job start.
- No amount of time off-duty at the away from home terminal will reset the calendar clock of job starts, and the employee shall not be required to take mandatory rest days at the away from home terminal.
- 24 hours off duty at the home terminal which does not include a full calendar day will reset the calendar clock.
- Interim release periods require notification to the crew before going off duty. If the crew is not notified, the 10 hours uninterrupted rest will prohibit changing the service to include an interim release.
- There shall be a two-hour limit on limbo time per each tour of duty.
- There shall be assigned a minimum of 24 hours off duty at the designated home terminal in each seven-day period during which time the employee shall be unavailable for any service for the railroad. The off-duty period shall encompass a minimum of one full calendar day and the employee shall be notified not less than seven calendar days prior to the assigned off duty period.
- A railroad shall provide hot nutritious food 24 hours a day at the sleeping quarters when the crew is at the designated away from home terminal, and at an interim release location. If such food is not provided on a railroad’s premises, a restaurant that provides such food shall not be located more than five minutes normal walking distance from the employee’s sleeping quarters or other rest facility. Fast food establishments shall not satisfy the requirements of this subsection.
- A railroad shall be prohibited from providing sleeping quarters in areas where switching or humping operations are performed.
- Not later than 12 months after the date of enactment of this act, the FRA shall promulgate a regulation requiring whistle-board signs allocated at least 1/4 mile in advance of public highway-rail grade crossings. Provided, however, such regulation shall not apply to such crossings that are subject to a whistle ban.
- Under the railroad whistle-blower law, the secretary of labor shall have subpoena power to require the production of documents and/or the attendance of witnesses to give testimony.
- Notwithstanding any other provision of law, regulation or order, whenever Congress enacts legislation mandating that the FRA promulgate a railroad safety regulation, there shall be no requirement for a cost/benefit analysis by the FRA.
- During an accident/incident investigation process, upon request, a railroad shall produce event recorder information to law enforcement personnel and to the designated employee representative(s) defined under the Railway Labor Act.
- In an engineer or conductor decertification proceeding, if the FRA issues a final order in favor of an employee, a railroad shall be prohibited from subsequently attempting to discipline such employee for any alleged acts which may have arisen from the incident involved in the decertification proceeding.
- In an engineer or conductor certification or decertification proceeding the FRA shall have the authority to require the retesting of the employee, to order the employee’s reinstatement with the same seniority status the employee would be entitled to but for decertification or refusal of certification, and to grant any other or further relief that the FRA deems appropriate.
- All federal railroad safety laws and regulations shall be subject only to the preemption requirements set forth in the Federal Railroad Safety Act.
- A railroad owned or operated by a state or other governmental entity shall, as a condition of being a recipient of federal funds, agree immediately thereafter the receipt of such funds to waive any defense of sovereign immunity in a cause of action for damages brought against such railroad alleging a violation of a federal railroad safety law or regulation pursuant to title 28, 45, or 49, United States Code.
- No state law or regulation covering walkways for railroad employees shall be preempted or precluded until such time as the FRA promulgates a regulation which substantially subsumes the subject matter.
- In any claim alleging a violation of a federal railroad safety law, a settlement of such claim cannot release a cause of action, injury or death which did not exist at the time of settlement of such claim.
- An employee of the NTSB or the FRA who previously worked as a railroad employee has the right to return to railroad employment with all seniority retained.
- Amtrak shall not be liable for damages or liability, in a claim arising out of an accident or incident unless the said Corporation is negligent in causing the accident or incident.