Chairman Marion Blakey
Remarks for the United Transportation Union
Washington, DC
July 30, 2002

 


Thank you, President Boyd. It is a pleasure to be here today.

I want to quickly acknowledge Jim Broekenhoefer… the popularity of your nickname, "Broken rail," is only exceeded by your good reputation in this town.

I must also thank, David Hakey and Jim Cumby.

On behalf of the NTSB and our Office of Rail Safety, we truly appreciate the efforts and commitment of the UTU's transportation safety team. This is a crack team . . . From recent accident investigations in Clarendon, Texas to Clarkston, Michigan, they have demonstrated - - as so many times in the past - - their value and terrific expertise in operations and human factors. Thank you for all your good work.

The theme of your regional meetings this year is "remembering our roots" … and the roots of the UTU, of course, were the four brotherhoods of the railway … the railway that is in itself at the very root of what this country is today.

There is something about the railroad that has a tenacious hold on the American imagination. All you have to do is look at the face of a young child as a train passes by … or listen to someone who really isn't all that old talk about how they miss the low call of the steam engine … to realize that there is something about the railroad the touches deep inside the core of many Americans.

This may be in part because this country literally grew along with the railroad - - not only in terms of growing from one coast to the other … but also in terms of growing from an agrarian society to an industrial one … growing in terms of the immigrants and settlers and miners and merchants and everyone else who followed in the wake of the adventurers and laborers who laid the rails …

Growing into the nation that we are today.

The railroad is indeed at the very root of what we are today. The historian, Oliver Jensen, called the railroad, "the biggest business of nineteenth-century America" . . . which . . ."made nearly all other businesses possible."

The men who built that railroad and who made it run are also at the very root of what we are today … the "boomers, hoggers and brass-pounders" who endured a life of danger, long hours, fatigue, and more danger … and who fought to have their say when it came to the requirements of the "men in warm offices somewhere up the line."

Railroading was dangerous work back when the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen first organized in 1883. It still is. And that is why the UTU has such an important role to play in working to improve the safety and working conditions of the 130,000 railway, bus, mass transit, and airport personnel you represent … a goal those of us at the National Transportation Safety Board are proud to share with you.

The mission of the NTSB is pretty straightforward: to prevent accidents in all modes of transportation, and save lives as a result … a mission that probably sounds pretty familiar to a lot of you here.

We are a group of people who want to do nothing more than figure out what went wrong and how to fix it … and we've been "fixing" things, now, for thirty years - about as long as the UTU, as the UTU, has been around.

As you know, the NTSB is an investigative and watchdog agency - - not a regulatory or enforcement outfit.

We conduct thorough and objective accident investigations and issue safety recommendations to prevent future accidents. We know that some of these safety recommendations, if implemented today, could have an immediate impact on safety, an immediate impact on saving lives … and that is why we have placed them on a Most Wanted list.

Without regulatory authority, therefore, the NTSB must look to government regulators, to industry, and to associations like yours to be our partners in our mission - to work with us to get our safety recommendations passed, particularly those on the Most Wanted list.

There are two Most Wanted safety recommendations in particular that I am looking to the UTU for help in implementing: positive train control and reducing operator fatigue.

Overall, last year's total rail accident rate was the lowest ever recorded - just over 4 accidents per million train miles. We also saw decreases in fatalities, release of hazardous materials and the lowest overall employee casualty rate, just over 3 for every 200,000 employee hours.

And yet, to borrow the watchword of the Switchmen, "the injury of one is the concern of all."

Positive Train Control systems would save lives and prevent injuries. The Safety Board has repeatedly investigated railroad collisions over the years that could have been prevented by a PTC system, including six in the last year alone - the most recent being a head-on collision between a freight train and a commuter train in Placentia, California, on April 23, 2002.

As you may recall, at 8:20 am a Burlington Northern Sante Fe freight train collided with a Metrolink commuter train, resulting in the fatal injuries of two Metrolink passengers. The Burlington Northern train was traveling between 40 and 50 miles per hour when the engineer saw the Metrolink commuter train on the track and immediately put the train into emergency braking. The Metrolink train was struck at 20 miles per hour, and was pushed back more than 360 feet, derailing its front passenger car.

Positive Train Control systems use Global Positioning Satellites, train systems and signals to keep a safe distance between trains operating on the same lines. The Safety Board has been encouraged by the efforts of some railroads to implement PTC systems. For example, Amtrak is installing a system along its high-density Northeast Corridor and on its Michigan line between Chicago and Detroit. New Jersey Transit and the Union Pacific are working to install systems as well - New Jersey system-wide, Union Pacific on its Chicago to St. Louis corridor.

But while we acknowledge some progress in this area, and while we recognize the complexities and costs involved in the implementation of PTC on the nation's railroads, we are not satisfied with the current pace of development and implementation of collision avoidance technologies as a whole.

The Federal Railroad Administration estimates that 40 to 60 accidents could be prevented by PTC each year. Seven fatalities and 55 injuries could also be prevented. And yet, to date, no plan for industry-wide integration has been developed.

We need your help to make PTC a reality.

Another Most Wanted recommendation that concerns all modes of transportation is Human Fatigue. Lost sleep can equal lost lives. The NHTSA estimates that 100,000 crashes and about 1,500 fatalities each year are due to fatigue-related accidents.

The Safety Board believes that the Hours of Service laws need to be changed to reflect our knowledge about the sources of fatigue and the effects it has on transportation safety. This law is flawed, and it has been since it was first enacted in 1907 … since it was revised in 1969 … and since it was amended in both 1976 and 1988.

The primary reason is it flawed is because the current railroad Hours of Service laws permit the longest work schedule of any federally-regulated transportation mode in the country.

A commercial airline pilot can fly up to 100 hours per month; a truck driver can be on duty up to about 260 hours a month; and shipboard personnel, about 240 hours per month. Locomotive engineers, on the other hand, can operate a train up to 432 hours per month. That's more than 14 hours a day.

I want to emphasize that I am not, in any way, advocating that we cut everybody back to 100 hours a month. But allowing any transportation worker - no matter what mode of transportation we are talking about - to work more than 400 hours a month is simply asking for trouble … trouble we have unfortunately seen and investigated over and over again at the Safety Board.

In the numerous railroad accident investigations in which the Board has determined fatigue to be a causal or contributing factor, all the train crew members in question - all of them - were in compliance with the Hours of Service law. They were, as they say, "rested under the law."

But this law assumes that workers are "rested" after 8 to 10 hours off the job … 8 to 10 hours in which they have to commute, eat, do the business of everyday life, maybe spend time with their families, and try to get some sleep. To believe that this constitutes a well-rested human being is simply not practical.

I concede that changing the Hours of Service laws is not a small step. It will take both management and labor to change it. Management likes the current set-up because it allows them to hire fewer employees. Labor likes it because it allows workers to put in more hours and earn more money.

But change and compromise, in this case, is necessary. Lives are at stake - the lives of the 130,000 workers the UTU represents … the lives of the thousands of passengers who ride your trains every day … and the lives of millions of citizens who live along the rails.

As I said before, without regulatory authority, the Safety Board looks to government regulators, to industry, and to associations like the UTU as partners in our mission - to work together to get our safety recommendations passed.

Both Positive Train Control and Human Fatigue have been on the Most Wanted list since it was created in 1990. That's twelve years … and that is too long.

We are turning up the energy level at the Safety Board to get these recommendations passed. I recently met with Administrator Alan Rutter at the FRA, and I - - and my successor - - will continue to meet with administrators to cut through the bureaucratic dance of paperwork and to evaluate what we can realistically accomplish.

But we need your help as well.

Safety is at the very root of the UTU's existence.

Back in a time when the injuries and deaths of railroad workers were so numerous and thought to be so unremarkable that nobody even bothered to keep track, eight men secretly met in a caboose in Oneonta, New York with a plan and the desire to organize themselves and to improve the working conditions of their bretheren.

Back in a time when brakemen regularly fell to their deaths and when switchmen lost life and limb, these fledgling railroad organizers banded together with a little-known state railroad commissioner named Lorenzo Coffin to force the railroads to adopt airbrakes and automatic couplers and to pass the very first Railroad Safety Act in 1893.

Back in a time when rail companies held all the cards, a former locomotive fireman named Eugene V. Debs stepped up and dedicated his life to speaking up for the working man.

Those are the roots of this organization. Men with the courage to stand up, often at great peril not only to their jobs, but to themselves. Men who gave voice to those who needed to be heard … to those who needed to be represented … to those who wanted to make a living and provide for their families.

It is a voice you at the UTU continue to provide today … a voice that still needs to be heard.

We are counting on the continued and crucial support of the UTU and its members. Working together, we can create one, great the voice that speaks for generations of transportation workers--those that have passed, and those yet to come-to ensure a safer future, for all of us.

Thank you.


 

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