March 2, 2004

SPRINGFIELD (March 2)—In a major first-step victory for UTU, a bill that would move the state’s railroad-safety regulating authority from the Illinois Commerce Commission to the Department of Transportation –and would mandate a walkway-safety rule for all of the state’s railroad yards–passed its first test today when it won unanimous approval in the House Transportation Committee.

House Bill 4881 received a bi-partisan vote of 17-0, even though representatives of the Norfolk Southern Railway testified against it.

“Norfolk Southern was the only party to appear in opposition to 4881,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “The support for all aspects of HB 4881 is widespread among civic groups, government groups and other U.S. Class I carriers. NS focused their opposition solely on the walkway safety provisions, but clearly the Committee was unconvinced. They moved quickly and unanimously to approve the bill.”

Szabo was the sole proponent to speak in favor of the bill. He testified on behalf of the UTU and members of the Transition Team that advised Gov.-Elect Rod Blagojevich on rail issues one year ago and emphasized the advantages of consolidating two fragmented state rail agencies.

“Currently state administrative support for rail is disjointed,” Szabo testified. “Consolidating agencies will lead to coordinated policy and administrative support for rail and better position our state to move forward on High Speed Passenger Rail and the major modernization of the antiquated rail infrastructure in Chicago.”.”

Szabo said more than 30 UTU Local Legislative Representatives were present in the hearing room ready to testify in favor of the bill’s walkway-safety provision if necessary.

“Rich Ross, the legislative representative from Local 1895, Jim Homan, from Local 1003, and Aaron Combs, the alternative legislative rep from Local 1003, all from NS, were ready to testify about the problems they have encountered with hazardous conditions and their inability to get them corrected by the carrier,” he said.

Szabo said Combs in particular would have provided eloquent evidence for the need for a walkway-safety rule.

“Aaron was the one who took photos documenting conditions at Norfolk Southern’s yard in Kankakee,” Szabo said. “We believe that those conditions contributed to the death of Brother Stephen Hall January 14. Aaron was the one whose film was confiscated by an NS supervisor. I’m sure he would have had plenty to tell the Committee.

“But his testimony turned out not to be necessary,” Szabo said.

“The Committee was unmoved by the position of NS and unanimously approved the bill without the need to call our other witnesses,” he said.

Following its approval by the House committee, H.B 4881 now moves to the floor of the House for action by the full body. A vote is expected in about three weeks.

Szabo warned, however, that today’s victory for the UTU should not be taken as grounds for complacency.

“There are many, many steps left in the process before H.B. 4881 becomes law, and it only takes the failure of one step to stop us,” he said. “While it was very encouraging to see the unanimity with which the Committee passed this important legislation, I would caution our members not to expect smooth sailing throughout.

“The key to victory will be the involvement of UTU members statewide,” Szabo said. “Norfolk Southern has fought the idea of a walkway-safety rule at every turn, and they will spend whatever it takes on lawyers, lobbyists and so-called “expert witnesses” to get this bill stopped.

“But we have the power to beat them,” he said. “It is up to you. Call your State Representative today and urge him or her to support HB 4881. With your continued involvement we can be victorious throughout the process.”