Thursday, September 5, 2013

Rail Freight Groups Face Off Unions Over 'Spy in the Cab' Controversy

Unforgiveable Actions of Drivers Prompts Imposition of Latest Safety Measures
Shipping News Feature

US – Two recent Court cases illustrate both the potential effect of modern technology in the workplace and the contrasting attitudes which even one individual can hold toward what they may view as an aid in one set of circumstances yet an intrusive and objectionable invasion of privacy in another. In the UK there was great resistance initially toward tachograph devices, designed to monitor the hours of service of truck drivers and other professional road users. With hindsight most, including the drivers themselves, now consider these a sensible, safe and fair method of ensuring staff do not work when unreasonably tired, and thus potentially dangerous. Now two major rail freight carriers in the US have resorted to Court action to justify another installation in the name of safety.

This month Union Pacific went before the federal Court insisting on the company’s right to install inward facing cameras in the cabins of its locomotives, this just a few weeks after rival outfit Kansas City Southern won its own action against strong opposition from labour unions under similar circumstances. Union Pacific have a particular interest in this matter following the involvement of one of its freight trains, LOF65–12, in the horrific accident which occurred near Chatsworth, California in 2008.

On Friday, September 12 of that year, westbound Southern California Regional Rail Authority Metrolink train 111, consisting of one locomotive and three passenger cars, collided head-on with the eastbound freighter. The locomotive of the Metrolink train derailed together with its lead passenger car, as did the UP locomotive and ten of its seventeen wagons. The crash killed twenty five people including the Metrolink engineer and the initial damages alone amounted to over $12 million.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) published its final report on the accident in January 2010 and made it plain as to what it considered the main cause of the accident saying, 'In our investigation, records showed that the Metrolink engineer habitually violated company policy, such as the ban on the use of cell phones while on duty. On the day of this accident, he made four outgoing phone calls while he was on duty, and he sent or received 95 text messages, 41 of which were while he was on duty, including one 22 seconds before the collision’. Meanwhile, although not contributing to the accident, the conductor of the UP train was also texting moments before the collision.

The report states that this investigation was a ‘watershed’, and pre-empted the case which the unions were to plead before the Courts three years later by saying, ‘Some may have concerns that the recommendations in this report are over-reaching, that they impinge upon individual privacy, and that the oversight footprint is too broad. We uniformly disagree’.

The NTSB rightly refers to the report as a ‘game changer’. As a direct result of its investigation into this accident Congress pushed through a bill to compel the fitting of positive train controls (PTC’s) on passenger and certain hazardous material routes before the end of 2015, something the safety organisation has been requesting for in excess of thirty years, as the report says, ‘sadly, it took 25 more lives and an act of Congress to finally move PTC, on passenger rail lines, from testing to reality’. PTC’s will react automatically to trackside signals when the driver is distracted or taken ill, stopping the train regardless of human control.

In a prescient statement the NTSB made the case for cameras in the cabs, having issued some scathing remarks about the behaviour of the train drivers who use the insular environment of the locomotive to send personal messages when they are supposed to be alert and on duty, and also about the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), saying it failed for five years to implement regulations controlling cell phone use in the cab until one month after the Chatsworth accident when it was finally spurred (or shamed) into action.

The report went on to point out that professionalism is ‘doing the right thing when nobody is watching’ and, in an argument that any union member would find it hard to refute, points out that even the NTSB’s own Board meetings are webcast to allow public scrutiny, and saying:

“Today, video recorders are everywhere, and we accept them. Video cameras record us at the ATM and record bank tellers at work. Whether we are in a casino in Las Vegas or at Walmart, there are cameras recording our every move. In transportation, we have long accepted cameras for safety, surveillance and security. In many cities, our children and their bus drivers are recorded on school buses for behavioural reasons.

“Airports have cameras recording activities inside and outside of the terminals. At the Safety Board, we often use video provided by airports to identify crash sequences. Trains such as the freight train involved in this accident have been equipped with outward facing cameras mounted on the locomotives to record, among other things, grade crossing accidents. Motor coaches have inward facing cameras, which we have used in our investigations to correlate driver actions, vehicle performance and evidence from the roadway.”

Despite the unions involved claiming that ‘the fight will go on’ no news of this has reached us since Judge Elizabeth Erny Foote ruled against the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (a branch of the Teamsters) and the United Transportation Union (now SMART Transportation Division) in the Kansas City Southern case on July 25 in the United States District Court in Shreveport, Louisiana.

By ruling that the company’s intention to install two of the inward facing cameras into its trains was a ‘minor dispute’ under the terms of the Railway Labor Act the unions were prevented from taking the case further as such disagreements do not allow the unions to exercise ‘self-help’. The union attempt to prolong the case by applying for an injunction to preserve the status quo whilst the matter went to arbitration. Judge Foote ruled much in the spirit of the NTSB report when she dismissed the matter and refused the injunction, saying:

“[It is] not frivolous to argue that the safety challenges posed by employees using personal electronic devices on the job necessitate the camera and review system proposed by Kansas City Southern railway.”

This ruling meant that Kansas City Southern could proceed and fit the cameras immediately. It remains to be seen if the unions have the will to go back to Court to reverse the procedure when it would appear that both public and industry opinion is so clearly set against them in the light of a litany of fatal accidents caused by drivers concentrating on their personal communications rather than the job in hand. Recently retired Secretary of Transport Ray LaHood will doubtless feel that this ruling is another small step to support the tireless campaign he conducted whilst in office to eliminate texting whilst driving on the road.

Photo: An image of the 2008 Chatsworth accident.