October 13, 2008

CHICAGO (Oct. 10)—For the third time in less than a year, Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) investigators have sustained a UTU Complaint that Amtrak required the crew of its California Zephyr to continue working beyond the 12-hour maximum allowed by the federal Hours of Service Law (HSL).

FRA Region IV Administrator Laurence H. Hasvold told UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo in an October 2 letter that the eastbound California Zephyr, Amtrak No. 6, exceeded its 12-hour Hours of Service limit near Naperville, Ill., on July 20 but was required to continue on to its final terminal at Chicago without any provision of relief for its expired crew.

“Interviews with Amtrak employees and managers connected to this incident confirmed that the assistant conductor assigned to Job AOC12 on July 19, 2008, was not provided relief; thus violated the Hours of Service Law (HSL) on July 20, 2008,” Hasvold wrote. He said the Region IV office in Chicago recommended that Amtrak be fined in connection with the incident.

“The real problem is that several years back Amtrak eliminated its crew base at Galesburg, 162 miles west of Chicago, and began running the Zephyr the entire 500 miles between Chicago and Omaha with a single crew,” Szabo said.

“Twice last December Amtrak allowed westbound crews to continue all the way to Omaha after going dead on the law in the middle of the night in Iowa,” he said. “Now we have a case in which an eastbound crew went dead in the Chicago suburbs. We have an ongoing problem with this route.”

Szabo said the westbound Zephyr is timed for 8 hours and 29 minutes between Chicago and Omaha, with the eastbound allowed 8 hours and 41 minutes. Both trains make eight intermediate stops. Szabo called that timetable “overly ambitious” given the history of delays.

The Zephyr has to fight its away across the Midwest on a congested right of way that serves as one of the nation’s principal arteries for long, heavy coal trains originating in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.

“There are numerous opportunities for delay on the Zephyr’s route, and when the train loses its slot in BNSF’s parade of coal trains it’s very difficult to find stretches of empty track where it can make up time and get back on its schedule,” he said. “The Zephyr is made to order for its crew to go dead on the law and the pattern of Hours of Service violations is proving this.”

Szabo said the most effective way for crew members to address the problem of HSL violations is to report them to the UTU.

“Inform the dispatcher and supervisor that you are due to expire under hours of service, but do as you are told if you are instructed to work beyond the 12-hour limit,” he said. “Try to get the instructions over the radio – not a cell phone – so there is a recording that protects you.”

“Never be insubordinate. Then write down the name of the supervisor who instructed you to exceed the HSL, and note the date, time, location, names of witnesses, and any other circumstances relevant to the offense.” Szabo said.

“Then turn over your notes to your Local Legislative Representative or Local Chairman for handling with my office,” he said. “We will file a Formal Complaint with the FRA.

“As these three cases make clear, when members act, the union gets results. Your own involvement is the best guarantee of results.”