2015 Nov.-Dec. Bruce Glover: PTC installation delayed 3 years: Complicated Technology or Power and Control?

Published: Mar 30 2016 10:10AM


In 2008, Congress passed a mandate requiring railroads to install Positive Train Control (PTC) systems on their right-of-way no later than January 1, 2016. This November, eight years after its original mandate and just two months ahead of the deadline, Congress -- now very different than it was in 2008 -- passed a new law granting railroads at least three additional years -- until 2018 (and maybe even longer) -- to install what its own regulators call “the single most important rail safety development in more than a century.”  

We can argue that PTC technology is too complex or cost too much (and ignore the fact that several commuter lines and Amtrak say they will have PTC operational by the original deadline), but we can’t ignore the bold demonstration of Corporate Power, with its well-funded political lobbyists, that allowed this new law to pass.   

As the PTC deadline grew closer, the railroads issued an outright threat to the American economy, indicating they would cease operations if not given an extension. “Freight will grind to a halt,” the economy will "lose 30 billion,” “700,000 Americans will lose their jobs,” and "millions of commuters will be stranded,” railroads told lawmakers. “Change the federal law, or we will shut 'er down," was the message. These threats from the rail carriers would, all by themselves, be a violation of federal laws requiring railroads to fulfill “Common Carrier” shipment of goods obligations. But that didn’t matter.   

The confidence the railroads displayed when they directed the government to "change the law or else,” should not be ignored by any of us! The arrogance is astounding. Some railroads had not even started installing PTC, as if a deadline never existed. Can you imagine what would happen if the employees directed Congress to “change the law or we are not coming to work?” Every labor leader, coast to coast, would be enjoined or jailed, and every employee that did not come to work would be subject to all sorts of threats. The balance of rights and power in this country are way out of whack! 

Rail safety has never been a more pressing issue than it is today. The number of tank cars carrying flammable gases and oils have increased from 9,500 in 2008 to 493,000 last year. Many environmental and concerned citizen groups are calling for closer scrutiny and more regulations of railroad freight operations. Even some members of Congress spoke out in favor of higher safety standards for rail carriers, especially in the transport of highly-volatile crude oils. But when it came time to  hold the railroads' “feet to the fire” on what its own federal regulators called, “the single most important rail safety development in more than a century,” those Congressional voices were mute. 

So, how can the railroads be so “bold" as to issue direct threats to the economy, and threaten to violate Federal Laws? Some would argue that it is “money in politics” which has corrupted the process and upset the balance of fairness.   

Former Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Railroads, now Chairman of the full House Transportation Committee, Representative Bill Shuster (R - PA), according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), has received $446,000 in campaign contributions from the railroad industry, with $141,500 coming in the 2013-2014 election cycle. 

Other members of the House Transportation Committee have also done well. Combined, in the 2013-2014 election cycle, the House Transportation Committee members received $1.25 million in direct campaign contributions from railroads.  In fact, the railroads kicked in another $721,700 in campaign contributions at the end of September. That oughta get the deal done!  

A similar story is true on the Senate side, where, according to the CRP, 77 Senators received $1.5 million in railroad campaign contributions during the 2013-2014 election cycle. Since 2008, when PTC legislation was passed, railroads have spent $316 million (according to CRP) on lobbyists in Washington D.C., while making campaign contributions of $24 million during the period, targeting chairmen and members of key committees. I think it was Bob Dylan that said, “money doesn’t talk, it swears.” 

Installation of what some say is “the single most important safety development in more than a century” will now be delayed at least three years. When installed, the PTC equipment will also help protect BMWED members by preventing trains or equipment from entering your area of protection. Now, this safety procedure, which could save MOW worker lives, will be delayed too.

There is more I ask you to consider. The next time someone complains to you about  “big Union money influencing politics,” set them straight! There is no way the few dollars you or I might contribute to DRIVE (which is the only money we can give to politicians) compares, at all, to the amount of money corporations hand out every day to buy access to politicians. Never, not even close, that’s nonsense! 

Look at the power rail corporations have to threaten Congress and force them to change laws. And, look at its willingness to use that power. Understand, that’s the same power it uses every day, mostly against your interest, to reduce your health benefits, lessen your pay and weaken your working conditions.  

Unions, the BMWED in particular, are the only institutions in the world that fight against this corporate dominance. Every day we fight for better pay, benefits and conditions for working people. We hire specific subject experts. We hire lawyers.  We employ many specialist including research, arbitration, safety, communication and the like. And, all of these Union resources (your resources) work together to help protect and improve the working lives of BMWED members. Without it, we would be at their mercy. I am glad I belong to a Union. One that is honest, works hard and cares.