House Joins Senate in Passing Rail Safety Bill with Hour Limits

By | October 19, 2007

he House acted this week to reduce the working hours of railroad crews, with lawmakers saying employee fatigue is a major factor in train accidents.

The labor rule changes were part of a railroad safety bill that also called for almost doubling the number of safety inspectors.

The bill is the first major revamping in more than a decade of the Federal Railroad Administration, the watchdog agency for rail safety. The measure, approved by a 377-38 vote, goes to the Senate, where the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has approved similar legislation.

The House proposal would prohibit shifts of more than 12 hours and require that railway employees get at least 10 hours off during a 24-hour period.

It would mandate one day off every week. Currently, crews that work less than 12 hours can be called back to work after eight hours.

“Our rail members, the engineers, trainmen and maintenance of way workers who ensure that this nation’s rail system runs safely, won a major victory” with passage, Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa said.

The legislation also would set limits on “limbo time,” periods in which workers have to remain at work sites as reserves while waiting to be transported to their point of final release. During this time, workers must stay awake and ready to respond to mechanical problems or security breaches _ and do so sometimes without pay.

Rail carriers could use up to 40 hours a month in limbo time per employee for the first year after the bill’s enactment, 30 hours in the second year and 10 hours in the third year.

Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., said in a statement that the bill is a step toward preventing incidents similar to the January 2002 derailment and chemical spill at Minot, which killed one man and sent hundreds to the hospital.

The National Transportation Safety Board said the derailment was the result of inadequate track maintenance and inspections on the part of Calgary, Alberta-based Canadian Pacific. The railroad disputed that finding.

“As we saw (with) the tragedy in Minot, when rail accidents occur, the result has a lasting impact on the families and communities involved,” Pomeroy said.

The White House, in a statement, said the labor rule changes were “overly prescriptive” and that the bill “does not provide the kind of flexibility that is needed to make fatigue management work.” It stopped short of threatening a presidential veto.

The chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Rep. James Oberstar, said there was a critical need to revise rail hours of service rules that have undergone only one major change since being enacted in 1907.

Oberstar, D-Minn., noted that while commercial pilots can work 100-120 hours a month, oceangoing ship personnel 360 hours and truck drivers 350 hours, train crews can operate a train up to 432 hours a month.

He cited statistics that 40 percent of train accidents can be traced to human factors and that fatigue plays a role in one-fourth of those accidents.

The legislation approves spending of $1.2 billion over four years to improve rail safety and would increase the number of federal safety inspectors from the current 421 to about 800.

It orders major rail carriers to come up with plans to put in place by the end of 2014 technology that automatically can stop a train when crews do not comply with signals.

It also requires the rail agency to act to prevent the deterioration of railroad bridges.

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On the Net:

Information on the bill, H.R. 2095, can be found at http://thomas.loc.gov/

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