June 23, 2009

CHICAGO (June 23)—Acting on a complaint filed by the UTU Illinois Legislative Board, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has cited the Iowa Interstate Railroad (IAIS) for failure to observe the General Code of Operating Rules when it authorized a work train to enter a mainline block in which a contractor’s maintenance-of-way equipment and employee were working.

FRA investigators concluded that the carrier’s dereliction nearly caused a collision between an IAIS work train and a ballast-regulating machine operated by a contractor’s employee.

The April 24 incident occurred as the IAIS Maintenance of Way Department was supervising the work of a track contractor in Bureau County between mileposts 122 and 124 on the former Rock Island Railroad’s Chicago-Quad Cities main line. .

According to UTU Local # 258 Legislative Representative Tracey L. Frerichs, who reported the incident in an April 27 letter to IAIS Chief Operating Officer M.C. Burkart, Engineer Joe Moth and Conductor Tyler Thurston held a track warrant from Yard Limit Bureau to MP 124 and were expected to shove a cut of ballast cars westward to MP 122, where ballast was to be dumped.

Frerichs told Burkart that before beginning the move, Moth and Thurston had received radio confirmation from MOW employee Andrew Foes that MOW Foreman Roger Bassett had told him that “men and equipment are in the clear.”

Frerichs said Engineer Moth repeated the instructions from Foes and received oral authorization to begin the move, with the locomotive shoving and Conductor Thurston riding the point.

After the train movement was under way, however, Thurston radioed his engineer that he saw something on the track ahead. When the object failed to clear the rails and appeared to be coming toward his train, Thurston ordered Moth to stop the train. The train stopped, and at MP 118 it was met by a ballast regulator operated by one of the contractor’s employees.

“This situation is troubling for many reasons,” Frerichs told Burkart in his letter. “The foreman in charge was not in visual or voice contact with the contract employee that he was in charge of and allowed a train into his Form B not fully knowing where all his employees were.”

Frerichs said the incident was particularly troubling because the same foreman also was involved in a 2007 incident in which a contractor was allowed to run a locomotive on the main line, a breach to which the FRA took exception. In that incident the FRA recommended a fine for the carrier due to the fact that a non-qualified contract employee was permitted to operate a locomotive on the carrier’s mainline. The IAIS ultimately claimed responsibility for the violation, claiming that the foreman in charge had received inadequate training.

In a June 18 letter, Region IV FRA Administrator Laurence Hasvold told UTU Illinois Legislative Director Bob Guy that the agency’s investigation “revealed a need for more management oversight of track authorities and better communication regarding job briefings” on the Iowa Interstate.

Hasvold also said better employee training and better communications between the railroad and the contractor seemed indicated because “this incident involved a contractor with limited understanding of the English language.”

Guy commended Conductor Thurston for his alertness in getting his train stopped and for reporting the incident promptly to his local legislative rep.

“This incident proves once again that membership involvement and membership initiative are our best guarantee of a safer workplace,” Guy said. “If you witness something that doesn’t look right to you, report it immediately to railroad supervision and your UTU local representatives.”

Guy said witnesses needn’t write down a full formal account of what they see.

“What’s important is for our members to document as many facts as possible, when it is safe to do so, from any incident that comes into question, and pass that information over to your local UTU leaders,” he said. “Those local leaders can then determine if the incident can be rectified by working with the carrier or if it needs to be forwarded to my office so I can advance it to the proper regulatory agency.

“The bottom line is that our members provide the eyes and ears for this organization while they are performing their duties. Without their commitment to safety we wouldn’t be able to properly handle incidents like this one.”