July 21, 2010

SPRINGFIELD (July 21)—Gov. Pat Quinn signed UTU-sponsored legislation that could result in fines or imprisonment for vandals who frighten train crews into taking actions that would adversely affect safe railroad operations.

“House Bill 4987 dramatically raises possible penalties for so-called ‘pranksters’ who interfere with the work of a train crew by placing objects on or near the tracks,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Robert W. Guy. “Those people could be in serious trouble.”

Guy explained that prior to HB 4987, persons placing debris or obstacles on a railroad right of way were subject to minimal penalties only if their action resulted in an accident causing injury or property damage.

“We lobbied for passage of this legislation because over the years it became clear to us that there really is no such thing as an emergency stop without damage,” Guy said.

“When our crews spot something on the track ahead they suffer terrific anxiety in their effort to stop the train before it overruns the obstacle. Once the brakes are set in emergency they have no further control over the train’s speed. They know that if the train does not stop in time it could derail and injure or kill them. All they can do is wait and hope for the best. It’s an extremely stressful situation that leaves crew members shaken even if the train stops well short of the obstacle.

“HB 4987 actually is a workplace health-and-safety bill,” Guy said. “It’s there to protect the physical and mental well being of the people who run trains.

“Operating crews shouldn’t have to endure these types of incidents without knowing that there could be major consequences for the people who commit these acts”, Guy said.

“Now that this kind of act could rank as a felony, it will be important for crew members to gather as much information as possible and report their findings to their supervisors and this office,” Guy said. “That way we can be sure that the local authorities have as much evidence as possible when searching for the culprits.”

Guy said the union had been concerned about the legal treatment of railroad vandalism for some time but raised the priority of its efforts this year when a crew in California put their train into emergency after spotting what appeared to be a person standing between the rails.

“They could not stop in time and the train struck the obstacle and passed over it,” Guy said. “The engineer and conductor were sure they had killed someone until they walked their train and found the fragments of a clothing-store mannequin, which was dressed up in clothing, strewn over the right of way. The crew members were shaken as they searched for what they were sure would be an unpleasant scene.”

Guy said under current Illinois law that incident, in which there was no property damage or injuries, would be treated as nothing but a “harmless prank.”

“Not anymore,” he said. “After Jan. 1, 2011, anyone caught doing something like that in Illinois will pay a big fine and maybe go to jail. It’s not a ‘stunt’ and it’s not a ‘prank.’ Thanks to the UTU’s legislative program, it’s a crime.”