The union’s renewed intensity on protecting our Amtrak, bus and transit members from assaults by passengers resulted in a late-night victory for our cause Nov. 8 in Michigan.

State Legislative Director Donald Roach proudly reported that HB 4917 and HB 4918, both to enhance protections for transportation workers, passed in the state House.

HB 4917 passed by a 68-41 vote. HB 4918 passed by a 70-39 vote.

The bills raise punishments for the assault of a transportation operator to a maximum of eight years, depending on the severity of the offense. They also make the punishments for repeat offenses more severe and adjust the state’s sentencing guidelines accordingly.

Fines for assault on transportation workers also would be increased — set at $1,000 or $8,000.

The legislation advances to the state Senate, where it likely will be taken up there next year. SLD Roach says that the time between now and its appearance in the upper house whenever that is in 2024 will be well spent.

“It’s a great step ahead, and we thank all who supported it, especially Rep. Samantha Steckloff of the 19th District, the primary sponsor of the legislation,” Roach said. “We’ll use the end of this year to message, educate and reach out with the help of our great members. We’re happy to have made it a third of the way there now, and we all need to get these protections in place for worker and passenger safety rather than later.”

The bills, introduced July 18, passed through the House’s Criminal Justice Committee with a recommendation from the committee for passage before their successful showing Nov. 8.

SMART Transportation Division Michigan State Legislative Director Don Roach reports that two bills supported by the union have taken a step forward in the state Legislature after receiving a key committee endorsement.

HB 4917 and HB 4918 seek to enhance protections for transportation workers by establishing more severe punishments for people who assault Amtrak employees, transit workers and bus operators.

The bills raise punishments for the assault of a transportation operator to a maximum of eight years, depending on the severity of the offense. They also make the punishments for repeat offenses more severe and adjust the state’s sentencing guidelines accordingly.

Fines for assault on transportation workers also would be increased — set at $1,000 or $8,000.

The bills, introduced July 18, were passed through the House’s Criminal Justice Committee with a recommendation from the committee for passage by the full House. A date for the legislation to be considered has not yet been set.

The bills’ primary sponsor is state Rep. Samantha Steckloff of Michigan’s 19th District.

State Senate has rail safety bills regarding two-person crews and train length before it

Michigan State Legislative Director Donald Roach served as a primary source as The Detroit News published articles this week (subscription required to read) centering on two pieces of rail safety legislation in the state Legislature.

Michigan State Legislative Director Don Roach
Donald Roach

After reviewing the circumstance of derailments and details of recent rail accidents in the state, the piece highlighted the renewed focus on the need to examine freight rail safety in the wake of the East Palestine, Ohio, derailment.

S.B. 100 would codify the long-standing standard and safe rail practice of requiring two operating crew members aboard a train. S.B. 139 places a-length limit of 7,500 feet on trains.

“Any time if there’s an incident along the rail, whether it be a pedestrian strike, or a car in a crossing, or there’s trespassers along the way, the conductors are always the first responders,” Roach told the Detroit News. “… They could be walking back to a fire. They could be walking back to just a set of wheels on the ground. It could be anything.”

State Sen. Erica Geiss, who introduced both the train-length and crew-size legislation, told the Detroit News that she expected the state Transportation Committee to consider these bills this spring.

Neighboring Ohio passed and saw a two-person crew signed into law at the end of March.

The state of Michigan is a great microcosm of the United States as a whole. It has major metropolitan areas, heavy industry, expansive agriculture and a diverse transportation network.  

Train tracks crisscross “The Big Mitten,” moving people to and from the state and getting products to both national and international markets. Belying their role in the supply chain, Norfolk Southern, CSX and a large number of shortlines have loomed large over the State House in Lansing for decades, peddling the kind of influence that reflects their role in the state’s economy as well as their bottomless lobbying budgets.  

Unfortunately for the carriers, another thing Michigan is known for is a hard-nosed and organized workforce. The most-recent demonstration of this has come from SMART Transportation Division’s own Don Roach — our state legislative director (SLD) in Michigan. Despite being outspent and outmanned in Lansing during his more than three years as SLD, Brother Roach and everyone on the State Legislative Board have not been outworked. This is being made readily apparent by the early results in this year’s legislative cycle with four pieces of legislation introduced and carrying momentum. 

First on the agenda is SB 100, Michigan’s two-person crew bill. With state Sen. Erika Geis as primary sponsor (she’s also chair of the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee), it also has the additional push of nine cosponsors. With these 10 backers, the bill is already halfway to the total number of votes needed to get through the senior chamber.  

In addition to the 2PC bill, Michigan’s Senate is also looking at SB 139 to legislation limiting freight trains in the state to 7,500 feet with fines to carriers of up to $5,000 per infraction. With the number of auto rack trains rolling out of Detroit, having this law in their state of origin will help train crews up and down the Midwest and eastern seaboard. When the rack trains start coming out of Michigan with 75 cars rather than the 200-car monsters we’ve been wrestling with during Precision Scheduled Railroading, Michigan’s crew bases won’t be the only ones who benefit from this new law. Both rail congestion and road traffic congestion due to blocked crossings should see improvement. 

A third bill Michigan’s legislative team has in the works aims to defend our brothers and sisters in passenger rail and bus service. This bill that is ready to be dropped in Lansing seeks to make it a felony in Michigan for anyone to assault an employee of a commuter or passenger train or a bus driver. In addition to upping the level of criminal classification for such actions, the bill also seeks to strengthen the fines for these crimes, ranging from $1,000 to $5,000 per conviction.  

Finally, our Michigan contingent have their eyes on SMART-TD’s national goals. The most-recent legislation put on the state’s agenda is a resolution stating support from Michigan’s Legislature for the Railway Safety Act of 2023 introduced in the U.S. Senate by a bipartisan collaboration. State resolutions of support will play a large role in garnering support from Michigan’s members of Congress as well as serve as a lead for other states to follow. 

To sum it up, our union is leading by example in labor’s war against PSR. All of us at SMART are excited to see the progress being made in Michigan and elsewhere and look forward to what comes next. 

As the expression goes, “There is strength in numbers.” That being said, our union’s about to get stronger.

Through the efforts of SMART-TD’s Michigan State Legislative Director Don Roach and TD Organizer Nick Greficz (GO 687 in Detroit, Mich.), our union has organized the operating personnel of Lake State Railway Company (LSRC) in Saginaw, Mich.

In this photo courtesy of LSRC employee & future member Tom Scott, a Lake State Railway train operates in Michigan.

In an effort that began in 2020, brothers Roach and Greficz had their goal realized in July when our newest brothers and sisters voted to certify and become a SMART-TD local under GO 049.

At the time of the certification vote, there were 39 LSRC employees eligible to become members of the union; however, as a testament to our new members’ work, LSRC has been expanding its customer base and has been hiring more operating crew. By the time their local is officially part of the union, they estimate that they will have membership in the mid-50s with plans on further expansion.

These new members service rail customers ranging from Wixom, Mich., as far north as Gaylord, Mich., and east to Port Huron. They serve a wide range of industries in their territory. The operation is based in Saginaw, the site of LSRC’s largest yard and hub of operations. In addition to Saginaw, LSRC has yards in Flint, Wixom, Midland, Bay City, Pinconning, Tawas, Alpena, Grayling and Gaylord.

In speaking with SLD Roach, he wanted it to be known that SMART-TD is the only union representing the employees of this short line and will be representing trainmen in all crafts. He said, “It took a few years, but we finally got it done. Organizer Nick Greficz deserves much of the credit. He was the boots on the ground, and we couldn’t have pulled this off without him.”

SLD Roach began his career with the railroad working this line as an engineer for CSXT prior to the Class I leasing the track rights to LSRC. When LSRC took over this line and serviced his old territory as a non-union shop, he took it personally.

“It’s infuriating when Class I railroads lease these tracks to non-union railroads. It makes it personal for me. To see our former members working without the benefits of a union contract is unacceptable. I want to thank the LSRC employees for reaching out to SMART and voicing their concerns.” Roach said.

In the case of LSRC employees organizing into SMART-TD, Director Roach’s personal victory has become a victory for our organization.

Legislators in Michigan introduced bills Dec. 2 in both the state House and Senate intended to keep freight rail operations on the state’s more than 3,600 miles of track running safely and efficiently.

H.B. 5596 and S.B. 767 require a crew of at least two qualified people in the operating locomotive of trains transporting cargo and hazardous materials in the state for public safety.

“It is vitally important to maintain the presence of two crew members in the locomotive,” said Don Roach, SMART Transportation Division Michigan state legislative director. “Despite any advances in technology, there is a safety factor called ‘the Rule of 2’ on the railroad. You have the engineer and the conductor in the cab, just like how airplanes have pilots and co-pilots. Right now, that’s being threatened by rail carriers who are looking to reduce costs and keep their profits high.”

“Each crew member has responsibilities and simultaneously performs duties in providing safe and efficient operation necessary with the longer trains railroads have been running. The crew members aboard are the first responders to a grade crossing collision, derailment or other emergency situation, and their reactions can mean the difference between life and death or a minor incident and a catastrophe.”

One real-life incident last year in the state drives the point home very well.

While a two-person crew of the conductor and engineer is the standard operating procedure on most freight traffic in the nation, a three-person crew, including two SMART-TD members out of Local 1709 in Pontiac, found themselves in the position where they saved a man’s life in November 2020 by applying a tourniquet after a moped rider’s legs amputated in a grade crossing accident.

This situation and many others that railroaders in Michigan encounter during the course of doing their jobs will be part of a campaign to raise awareness among the public and legislators about the necessity of keeping the standard of two people aboard, Roach said.

“The public safety of our communities is non-negotiable, and this legislation will help prevent potential accidents or derailments. The citizens of Michigan deserve to feel safer with two crew members in the cab in the trains that roll through their communities, day and night.

“The Rule of 2 matters and saves lives. A crew of two is safer for you,” Roach said.

Rep. Tim Sneller (D-Dist. 50) introduced H.B. 5596, which was co-sponsored by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. Jack O’Malley (R-Dist. 101) and:

  • Rep. John Cherry (D-Dist. 49)
  • Rep. Jim Ellison (D-Dist. 26)
  • Rep. Darrin Camilleri (D-Dist. 23)
  • Rep. Ranjeev Puri (D-Dist. 21)
  • Rep. Tullio Liberati (D-Dist. 13)
  • Rep. Terry Sabo (D-Dist. 92)
  • Rep. Yousef Rabhi (D-Dist. 53)
  • Rep. Lori Stone (D-Dist. 28)
  • Rep. Cara Clemente (D-Dist. 14)
  • Rep. Brenda Carter (D-Dist. 29)

The Senate bill was introduced concurrently by primary sponsor Sen. Erika Geiss (D.-Dist. 6).

Read the House bill.
Read the Senate bill.

From left, SMART Transportation Division Minnesota State Legislative Director Nick Katich, Michigan SLD Don Roach, Amtrak employee Stefan Schweitzer, FRA Deputy Administrator Amit Bose, TD Local 168 (Chicago, Ill.) member Keisha Hamb-Grover and Illinois State Legislative Director Bob Guy stand at Chicago’s Union Station on Oct. 13.

Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) Deputy Administrator Amit Bose’s nomination by President Joe Biden to become administrator of FRA was advanced Oct. 20 by the U.S. Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
Along with Bose, the nomination of Meera Joshi to be administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) also was advanced to the full U.S. Senate by a 22-6 committee vote. A timetable for the full Senate to consider Bose’s and Joshi’s nominations has not yet been set.
In related news, Bose was a passenger Oct. 13 aboard the Amtrak Wolverine route from Chicago to Detroit with three SMART Transportation Division state legislative directors and also appeared at a news conference at Chicago’s Union Station as the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission (MIPRC) unveiled its 40-year Midwest Regional Rail plan.
“Looking all the way through 2055, the plan addresses key corridor and investment priorities, potential funding strategies, and necessary governance structures identified by the states working with MIPRC,” Bose said. “While America’s interstate highway system and commercial aviation industry are vital and indispensable, rail can and does play a key role in our multi-modal transportation system,” Bose said. “Nowhere is that more evident than Chicago, the nation’s rail hub.”
SMART-TD Illinois State Legislative Director Bob Guy, chairman of the commission, as well as Michigan SLD Donald Roach and Minnesota SLD Nick Katich, all spent time with Bose during the trip before MIPRC began its three-day-long meeting.
“It was wonderful to be able to spend time with Deputy Administrator Amit Bose while he was in Chicago and on the train to Detroit as part of the MIPRC annual meeting,” Guy said. “It’s clear that he is very aware of our serious concerns and frustrations with the previous FRA hierarchy, but his openness, communication and availability to our members and our leadership are a testament to his priorities and provides a glimpse into how he values SMART-TD’s input on issues affecting our members.”
Bose also was a guest on the SMART-TD National Legislative Office’s monthly Zoom call Oct. 11 where he discussed concerns brought up by both national and state officers.
A full recap of the wide-ranging discussion that Deputy Administrator Bose had with SMART-TD officers will be published in the next edition of the SMART-TD News.