February 21, 2003

CHICAGO (Feb. 21)–The UTU’s Illinois Legislative Board has filed a formal Petition asking the Illinois Commerce Commission to issue a set of rules requiring railroad companies to provide safe walkways for employees who work on the ground.

The Petition, which included suggested language based on rules already in force in several other states, asks the Commission to require rail carriers to keep their outdoor work areas free of debris, stray lading and other obstacles; to assure that walkways are wide enough for employees to stand, throw switches and walk safely between trains moving on adjacent tracks; and that walking surfaces be reasonably smooth and constructed with stable materials, such as ballast small enough to provide a relatively smooth and even walking surface.

Distances between tracks, clearances around switch stands and other fixed installations, and even the maximum permissible slope for a walking surface (no more than one inch of rise for every eight inches of distance) are spelled out numerically in feet and inches in the exhibits attached to the Petition.

“The sole purpose for this request is safety,” wrote Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo in his 1 1/2-page Petition filed Feburary 12. “Unfortunately, Illinois consistently ranks as having the second or third worst railroad safety record in the U.S., depending on the specific category involved. Regarding statistics covering walkways…according to the latest statistics provided by the Federal Railroad Administration, Illinois ranks as the worst in such injuries to railroad workers.”

Szabo told the commission that walkway injuries reported to the FRA include slipping and stumbling due to an irregular surface material, such as large ballast; stepping into a hole or depression in the walkway; sinking or sliding in dislodged lading such as coal, grain or cement; and stumbling over a piece of debris such as a discarded air hose or knuckle.

“The problem of unsafe walkways is endemic state-wide,” Szabo wrote in the Petition’s summary paragraph. “We are proposing a rule similar to one agreed to in 2002 by the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe and Union Pacific in the state of Nevada by consensus agreement.”

A copy of the consensus agreement reached by rail carriers and unions in Nevada was enclosed with the Petition and labeled Exhibit 2. The Petition asks that all new tracks constructed must comply with the new standards and that all existing track be subject to a provision of the consensus agreement allowing interested parties to inspect and identify problem areas and agree to appropriate improvements.

“If the parties cannot agree upon an appropriate remedy at a particular location, the Commission would make the final binding decision,” the Petition asks.

Szabo said the Commission is being petitioned to issue rules because “too often jawboning the carriers has not worked.”

“We have discussed the problem with them many times, but follow-up has been irregular and unpredictable,” he said. “Debris, uneven walkways, large ballast on switching leads–all of these problems have been well documented, and the carriers’ varying attentiveness to our union’s complaints also is well documented. When common sense does not prevail it’s time to go to code. Recent history has proved that petitioning the Commission is the right way to go for our members.”

Szabo said the Petition has been assigned docket number T03-0015. The next step, he said, is for the Commission to decide whether the Petition merits a hearing, which Szabo believes is likely.

“At the hearing I anticipate the matter will be turned over to a workshop consisting of representatives of the rail industry, Commission staff and the UTU,” he said.

“The Commission would likely withhold its ruling until the workshop had an opportunity to reach consensus and approve a ruling. If the members of the workshop arrive at a consensus, the Commission will adopt their rules and issue them as its own. If consensus is not reached, the Commission’s staff, the UTU and the carriers would each present their own arguments, and the Commission would then reach its own finding.

“One way or another,” Szabo said, “I intend to solve the problem of unsafe walkways on the railroads in Illinois.”