November 25, 2008

CHICAGO (Nov. 25)–Based on a Complaint filed by the UTU Illinois Legislative Board, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has found Amtrak guilty of operating its California Zephyr in violation of the Federal Hours of Service Law (HSL) on three more occasions.

“That brings to six the number of HSL violations the FRA has confirmed on the Zephyr route in the last year,” said Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “The sheer number of such violations strongly suggests there is a continuing problem with the scheduling and the management of this train.”

The agency also suggested that Amtrak supervisors may be issuing unclear instructions to Zephyr crews in an effort to get them to ignore the HSL limits and shift blame away from management.

In a November 13 letter to Szabo, FRA Region IV Administrator Laurence H. Hasvold said an agency investigation determined that Amtrak supervisors had violated Title 49 parts 21103 and 228 by instructing or allowing California Zephyr crews to continue on to their final terminal beyond the federally mandated 12-hour limit.

Hasvold noted further that Amtrak supervisors appeared to be issuing ambiguous instructions to the Zephyr crews who were about to expire under the law.

“Interviews with Amtrak employees connected to the incidents confirmed that expectations related to Hours of Service were believed to be unclear and managed arbitrarily by Amtrak,” Hasvold wrote. “Hence, on three occasions Amtrak either allowed or required an employee to violate the HSL.”

Hasvold said FRA will recommend fines to Amtrak for the violations. Szabo said crew members must be alert to Amtrak’s ambiguous instructions and should ask for further clarification.

Szabo said the quickest way for employees to protect themselves is for crew members to ask a few key questions over the radio, where all conversations are recorded.

Szabo said if a crew member approaching the 12-hour limit hears an instruction from a supervisor that seems to suggest working past the federal HSL limit, his or her response should be: “Do you want me to violate the Hours of Service Law?”

Szabo said if the answer is no or is unclear, the crew member should reply by stating: “It is my understanding that I am relieved of all responsibilities and directed to deadhead on the train to my point of final relief. Is that correct?”

“This clearly presents the supervisor with a question which he in turn must answer clearly,” Szabo said. “The crew member riding the train as a deadhead cannot collect tickets, cannot answer passenger inquiries about the train, cannot open the train’s doors, cannot make announcements or perform any functions regarding the train’s operation.

“You should not be insubordinate,” Szabo emphasized. “Do not refuse to carry out an instruction from a superior. But once you’re off duty, write up a brief transcript of the incident while the details are still fresh in your mind. Be sure to note the time, date, train number and the names of any Amtrak supervisors you spoke with.” he said.

“And be certain to properly record your hours of service, including any violation,” Szabo said. “An employee can be held personally responsible for failing to accurately report hours of service. But the carrier is responsible for ‘ordering or allowing’ you to violate.

“If you turn over your notes to your local chairman or local legislative representative, the UTU Illinois Legislative Board will write up a Formal Complaint to the FRA, and the FRA will interview the respective Amtrak officials and listen to the tapes,” Szabo said. “If Amtrak knowingly allowed you to break the law, the carrier will be held responsible.”