March 5, 2010

SPRINGFIELD (March 5)—When UTU Illinois Legislative Director Robert W. Guy read a wire-service story out of California last January he got angry.

Then he got busy.

The story from the Central California town of Merced described how vandals had brought a freight train to an emergency stop by placing a mannequin on the tracks directly in the train’s path.

“The mannequin was ‘dressed” in clothing, so there was no way the crew could distinguish it from a live human being,” Guy said. “The crew tried to stop the train as soon as possible, but it ran over the mannequin before it could stop and both crew members honestly believed they’d just killed somebody.”

All concerned, including local emergency responders who were dispatched to assist with the incident, were relieved when the “remains” found under the train turned out to be those of a mannequin.

“As operating crews, we’ve probably all witnessed what the media call ‘childish pranks,’” Guy Said. “But the mannequin incident in California was not the work of a child. It was the work of someone who was old enough to know right from wrong and deserved to be penalized accordingly.”

Guy decided the incident was a signal for him to get to work drafting legislation to make sure anyone playing a similar prank in Illinois is charged with a felony.

“We need to follow the example of California” Guy said. “California law doesn’t treat such incidents as pranks. It ranks them as felonies. Even if nobody is killed or injured, the offender can be jailed and fined.”

Guy drafted legislative language amending the Illinois Motor Vehicle Code to make sure railroad “pranksters” in Illinois will be treated the same as those in California. House Bill 4987 will make it a felony for anyone to place objects on railroad tracks or rail right of way that would adversely affect safe railroad operations.

“Under current Illinois law there must be some form of significant property damage or bodily harm to warrant the stiff penalty of a felony,” Guy said. “If the California incident had occurred in Illinois, the offender could have gone unpunished or received a minimal penalty.

“I don’t think that would be a fair outcome for our hard-working, dedicated members,” Guy said. “Train crews suffer unbelievable stress whenever they are put through one of these ordeals, and so-called pranks have a negative impact on a wide variety of people and interests. That’s why our legislation also is being supported by the rail carriers, the Illinois AFL-CIO, other rail labor organizations, the Illinois State Police and the Associated Firefighters of Illinois.”

The UTU language, which so far has picked up more than two dozen co-sponsors in the House, passed its first test on Thursday when it was unanimously approved by the House Judiciary-Criminal Law Committee.

“On the Committee as well as among the co-sponsors we have strong bi-partisan support,” Guy said. “The unions, the rail industry and the law-enforcement agencies all agree that tricking a train crew into taking adverse action is beyond mere vandalism. It’s actually a very serious form of sabotage.

“A false obstruction or a replica of a human on the tracks disrupts interstate commerce,” he said. “It ties up police and firefighters who could be assisting at real emergencies elsewhere, blocks essential railroad crossings used by emergency vehicles, and subjects train crews to severe psychological stress and trauma.

“It deserves more than a slap on the wrist.”