April 21, 2009

WASHINGTON (April 21)—With his switchman father and three sisters looking on, former UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo went before the Senate Commerce Committee today in a hearing that could result in his confirmation as President Obama’s new Federal Railroad Administrator.

U.S. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) introduced Szabo to the Committee with remarks that highlighted Szabo’s three decades as a railroad worker and as a highly successful public administrator and union official with a total devotion to rail safety.

“Joe Szabo understands better than most the long days, unpredictable schedules and sometimes hazardous working conditions that come with employment in the railroad industry,” Durbin said. He noted that Szabo “has worked for the railroad—both the Illinois Central and Metra—since he was 18 years old, including stints as a yard switchman, road trainman, and commuter passenger conductor.

“Five generations of his family have worked on the railroad,” Durbin said, calling the committee’s attention to the presence in the hearing room of Szabo’s father, Joseph F. Szabo, a 40-year veteran of the Illinois Central Railroad.

“Today he’s watching from the front row as his son goes through this confirmation hearing to be the chief railroad official in the Obama administration, a job he is uniquely qualified to hold,” Durbin said. He said Szabo’s railroad heritage and rich job experience have made him “a trusted and respected voice in rail labor and in the industry.”

The senator recited what he called Szabo’s “distinguished record of public service and many accomplishments to show for his work in Illinois.”

That record, he said, included serving as UTU Illinois Legislative Director and mayor of the Chicago suburb of Riverdale, as well as many years of public activism that culminated in the Illinois General Assembly’s 2006 decision to fund a doubling of Amtrak service in the state from three daily round trips to seven.

“Joe’s advocacy helped Illinois passenger rail achieve the fastest growth in ridership and revenue in the Amtrak system,” Durbin said.

Durbin departed from his prepared remarks at one point, however, when he noted that during the pre-confirmation investigative process “the FBI found that Joe Szabo has only one serious flaw: He’s a diehard Cubs fan.”

Szabo thanked Sen. Durbin for what he called his “incredibly kind remarks” and thanked U.S. Sec. of Transportation Ray LaHood for supporting his nomination and giving him “the opportunity to serve.”

He also thanked his parents, saying, “It was from my father that I inherited my genetic affinity for railroading and for the Chicago Cubs, and from him and my mother that I inherited my devotion to civic duty.”

But Szabo struck a somber note when he turned to the subject of railroad safety.

“I’ve had friends killed or injured in the line of duty,” he said grimly. “I’ve been in the cab of a locomotive when the train was involved in a grade-crossing accident. If confirmed, I will make it a priority to enforce the more than 40 new provisions in the Rail Safety Improvement Act.”

Szabo returned to an upbeat note when he told the Committee he is looking forward to managing the distribution of $1.3 billion in Amtrak capital funding and $8 billion in capital funding for state passenger rail programs included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

“I am thrilled at the possibility of leading FRA’s implementation of these programs so necessary to the restoration and growth of our economy,” he said.

“Truly, what we’re seeing is a renaissance in rail. Obviously, the plate is full, but I cannot think of a better time to be at FRA.”

Acting UTU Illinois State Director Bob Guy said that he “couldn’t think of a better qualified and more dedicated individual to lead the FRA at this time.

“It will take a unique talent to tackle the tasks that lie ahead for the FRA, but I know how much Joe is looking forward to the challenge,” Guy said. “I’m positive that Joe will do an incredible job in his new position, and I, as well as all Illinois UTU members, wish him the best. We’re all very proud of him.”