By John Risch, 
National Legislative Director – 

What do we want? What do you want?

What does your union want? What does labor want? The most common question I get when working Capitol Hill here in Washington, D.C., is – “What’s the ask?” – meaning, what is it you’re going to ask the representative or senator for?

I was pondering this question recently when I was asked to give a presentation to a group called OneRail to outline our union’s legislative goals for this session of Congress. I came up with the simple answer, “We want to work.”

When I’m asked by senators and representatives alike, that’s my answer. “We want to work.” We don’t want to go on the dole. We don’t want unemployment benefits or job retraining.

In sharp contrast to the sea of corporate D.C. lobbyists, we don’t want any special tax breaks or special treatment … we just want to work.”

We want to operate freight and passenger trains, drive buses and fly airplanes and we deserve fair pay for doing so.

Plus, we expect and demand on many levels that our workplaces are safe, so that at the end of our shift, run or flight, we can go home to our families in one piece.

A big part of what we do in our Legislative Department is work to keep the jobs our members have, encourage the creation of more jobs for our members and work to ensure that our workplaces are safe.

Here are examples of our efforts:

•We work to make sure Amtrak and our nation’s other passenger rail operations receive adequate investments.

•We work to see that our nation’s transit agencies receive their fair share of revenue from the highway trust fund, and

•We support the essential air service program, which ensures that even people in small towns across America have some access to air service.

We are involved in saving jobs too, particularly on the coal side of the railroad industry. At least 20 percent of our freight rail members’ jobs rely on the shipment of coal. To that end, we have actively lobbied Congress and worked with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy to keep coal a part of America’s energy mix. On the West Coast, we are working with allies to open three new ports for coal exports from the Powder River Basin. Thanks go to Herb Krohn, the Transportation Division’s Washington State Legislative Director, for taking the lead on this effort.

But when you sum it all up and ask – “What do we want?” – the answer remains, “We want to work.”

I’ll leave you with the finest reply ever given on what labor wants. Samuel Gompers, the first president of the American Federation of Labor (the AFL of the now AFL-CIO), eloquently said:

“What does labor want? We want more schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures, to make manhood more noble, womanhood more beautiful, and childhood more happy and bright.”

Amtrak LogoSMART Transportation Division National Legislative Director John Risch has sent a message to every member of the U.S. House of Representatives seeking their support of a “clean” Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act of 2015 (PRRIA) bill, which would authorize and fund Amtrak.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee unanimously approved this bipartisan legislation (H.R. 749) Feb. 12.

The Transportation Division is asking all SMART members to contact their representative today and ask them to support a “clean” PRRIA bill when it is called this week.

A webpage created by Transportation Division Colorado State Legislative Director Carl Smith enables SMART members, using their nine-digit ZIP code, to find their U.S. representative and email them a request for their support of a “clean” PRRIA bill. It is also provides their representative’s telephone number to contact their office by telephone.

The link to the webpage is here.

Risch’s message is below.

“On behalf of the SMART Transportation Division – our nation’s largest railroad labor union – I urge you to support a clean version of H.R. 749, the Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act of 2015 (PRRIA), when it is considered on the House floor this week.

“This important legislation funds and sustains a key component of our national transportation system and we commend Chairman Shuster, Ranking Member DeFazio, Subcommittee Chairman Denham and Subcommittee Ranking Member Capuano for their leadership in crafting this bipartisan, compromise legislation.

“We fully support this legislation despite having concerns that the bill does not provide Amtrak with the funding levels it needs to make needed repairs and upgrades to an aging system. As Amtrak’s annual budget requests have established, its aging fleet needs replacing as the system faces significant and disruptive renovations to tracks, bridges, tunnels and other infrastructure in the coming years.

“We also urge you to oppose any amendments that would undermine this bipartisan compromise. In particular, we strongly oppose any amendments that would seek to privatize parts of the Amtrak system, eliminate long distance routes, contract out important work, including food and beverage services, or otherwise harm Amtrak’s ability to operate effectively.

“This bill is an important step in bringing long-term stability and investment to America’s passenger rail operations. Once again, we urge you to support a clean PRRIA bill and look forward to working with you to create the transportation network that Americans want and deserve.”

The Federal Railroad Administration Feb. 10 will hold a public hearing before ruling on a waiver request by Southeastern Pennsylvania Metropolitan Transportation Authority (SEPTA)?to extend its current waiver of hours of service provisions for on duty points.

SEPTA has asked FRA to renew a waiver that the transit agency has had in effect for the past two years.

The rule in question involves the time employees spend traveling from home to start work somewhere other than their usual designated location. At issue is whether this time is considered as part of their hours of service.

In its written comments to FRA prior to this hearing, the SMART? Transportation Division said it “opposes SEPTA’s request because granting it would reduce much needed rest periods for operating employees and will put the traveling public and SEPTA employees at increased risk of fatigue related accidents.

“Fatigue related accidents are a particular concern because of SEPTA’s claim that it serves 3.8 million people and is the sixth largest U.S. commuter rail system, averaging approximately 127,000 daily weekday riders. Given the large amount of passengers that SEPTA carries, granting this waiver request will place crew members and the public in increased likelihood of fatigue-related accidents to help solve what are essentially crew scheduling issues.

“According to SEPTA, only seven assignments start at a location different than the regular reporting location for extra board employees. We estimate this waiver is a fix for less than five percent of SEPTA’s total jobs. Again, this is a crew scheduling issue and in no way justifies a waiver from minimal hours of service rules. If SEPTA needs help in managing crew availability and scheduling concerns, we would be happy to assist them.

“The SMART Transportation Division believes deadhead transportation to an on duty assignment should be counted as time on duty for SEPTA operations, just as it is counted as on duty for every other railroad in the country. The reason is simple, whether an employee is working on an assignment or driving to an assignment, they are still not receiving needed rest. There is no guarantee SEPTA will keep this system if given this waiver. It would clearly benefit SEPTA to remove it if this waiver is approved.

“The Metro-North accident in November 2013, resulting in the death of four people, was found to be caused by an engineer that ‘nodded off’ before the accident. The engineer had recently changed from an afternoon to morning shift, which could have impacted his internal clock. This should have been a wake-up call for SEPTA.

“In the interest of public safety and in the interest of preserving minimal hours of service standards, the SMART Transportation Division asks that the FRA decline this waiver request.

“In its petition, SEPTA states it has the support of the SMART Transportation Division for this waiver. This claim, along with much of SEPTA’s claims in this request, is inaccurate. We oppose this waiver request and ask that it be denied in its entirety.”

Transportation Division Pennsylvania Paul Pokrowka attended the Feb. 10 hearing.

“In October 2014, I attended SEPTA Local 61’s meeting and the membership unanimously asked me to fight this issue. This is of major concern for us due to safety of our members and the riding public. Fatigue related accidents are a huge concern to the Pennsylvania Legislative Board. SEPTA has chosen to spend their resources circumventing the system rather than working with this office for a proper resolution,” Pokrowka said.

The public hearing was scheduled for 10 a.m. at Baldwin Tower at 1510 Chester Pike in Crum Lynne, Pa.


Local 61 Legislative Rep. Keith English, Pokrowka, Local 1373 Legislative Rep. Kyle Brightbill and SEPTA General Committee of Adjustment Vice Chairperson Michael Stevens attend the Feb. 10 waiver request hearing before the Federal Railroad Administration.


Transportation union leaders vowed to “redouble their efforts” to push for bipartisan solutions to the growing transportation infrastructure investment crisis that is undermining the economy and idling millions of jobs, said AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department President Edward Wytkind following the 2014 Fall TTD Executive Committee meeting Nov. 13.

“We had an important conversation today about how the midterm elections will impact our members in 2015,” Wytkind said. “We focused on how we can change the tone and content of the senseless debates in Washington about the bread and butter economic issues that have gone unaddressed for too long. We also vowed to stop current and newly elected members of Congress who think they’re being sent to Washington to eviscerate workers’ rights and abdicate the federal government’s responsibility as the chief steward of our transportation system.”

SMART Transportation Division President John Previsich and SMART Transportation Division National Legislative Director John Risch were in attendance.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) joined the meeting to collaborate with transportation unions on strategies to end the gridlock on vital transportation funding legislation. Specifically, Carper emphasized the need to stop “kicking the can” on a long-term fix to the insolvency faced by the Highway Trust Fund, which is the centerpiece of transit, highway, and bridge investments.

“I am committed to working with TTD affiliates, as well as a broad coalition of businesses, labor, truckers, motorists, transit riders, and elected officials, to ensure Congress does its job to pass and fund a long-term transportation bill. Without long-term funding certainty, our cities and states have put projects on hold that would repair our aging infrastructure and grow our economy,” Carper told transportation union leaders.

“Passing a fully-funded surface transportation bill is my top priority in the lame duck session, but Congress also must not lose sight of other critical infrastructure responsibilities in the rail, aviation, and port-maritime sectors. I believe that the chorus of voices supporting this initiative will be heard and Congress will do the right thing.”

Two senior officials of the Obama administration also joined the meeting to discuss the president’s goal to boost investments in and modernize our transportation system.

Byron Auguste, deputy director of the National Economic Council, and Peter Rogoff, undersecretary of transportation for policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation, joined the Executive Committee to discuss strategies to unify Democrats, Republicans, and Independents around a bipartisan solution to our severe infrastructure investment deficit and to emphasize the importance of such a solution to the administration in 2015.


ECP braking technology is part of DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s (PHMSA) proposed ruling to make hauling crude oil safer. If passed, the proposal would require advanced braking systems, called electronically controlled pneumatic brakes or ECP technology, to be installed on trains hauling 20 cars or more of oil or ethanol.

National Legislative Director John Risch recently commented in an article by Energy Wire, stating that ECP braking technology is “the greatest advancement in safety I have witnessed in 30 years on the railroads.”

Risch went on further to say, “By instantaneously applying the brakes on all cars, ECP systems reduce in-train forces and dramatically reduce the distance a train needs to stop.”

Transportation regulators have estimated that if something is not done, the next oil train derailment could cost up to $5.75 billion, more than twice as devastating as the derailment and explosion that occurred in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.

The PHMSA’s proposed ruling also includes making oil trains safer by requiring newly designed tank cars with a thicker steel shell. The proposal has three options on the table for new tank cars. Option I is a tank car that features a 9/16 inch steel shell, outfitted with ECP brakes and equipped with rollover protection. Option II would also have the 9/16 inch steel but would not require the car to feature ECP brakes, while option III would have 7/16 inch steel and would also not require the ECP brakes or rollover protection.

In his comments to PHMSA’s proposed ruling, Risch stated, “We support Option I that features tank cars with 9/16 inch steel, outfitted with ECP brakes and equipped with rollover protection. We believe that Options II and III should be eliminated and Option I established as the standard.”

Risch has also suggested in an additional letter to the PHMSA that additional safety measures be taken. “We respectfully recommend that there be a minimum requirement of five buffer cars of sand behind the lead locomotives on all crude oil and ethanol unit cars. These buffer cars will give the crew some time to get out of the locomotive cabs and evacuate the area with their lives after a train wreck.

“During an accident, the sand buffer cars can rupture and spill sand creating a berm on the ground between the crew and draining oil. That spilled sand can also be used to help soak up the spilled oil or ethanol.

“Our nation’s railroads are an inherently safe way to transport ethanol and crude oil and accidents are rare. That being said, safety needs continuous improvement… While prevention is priority, both accidental and intentional incidents are inevitable and must be anticipated by this rulemaking.”

Risch, John.2011

SMART Transportation Division’s Alternate National Legislative Director John Risch appeared on America’s Work Force daily labor radio program Dec. 23 to discuss the country’s support for Amtrak and other issues.
America’s Work Force is the only daily labor-radio program in America and has been on the air since 1993, supplying listeners with useful, relevant input into their daily lives through fact-finding features, in-depth interviews, informative news segments and practical consumer reports.
Through the support and participation of the labor community, America’s Work Force radio program features regional, national and international labor leaders and advocates, as well as politicians, civic leaders and industry professionals discussing issues important to the labor movement.
To listen to Risch’s interview, visit
To learn more about John Risch, view his biography here.


WASHINGTON — New jobs building and operating high-speed rail “are American jobs that can’t be shipped overseas and would be a Godsend in this economic downturn,” UTU Alternate National Legislative Director John Risch told a congressionally sponsored forum here Aug. 3.

“Railroad operating jobs are not just good paying jobs; they are great careers,” Risch told his audience, which included a bi-partisan group of lawmakers and their staff interested in advancing high-speed passenger railroading, as well as officials of the American High Speed Rail Alliance.

“Amtrak and its workforce should be the backbone for high-speed rail in America,” Risch said. “Amtrak, by law, is America’s national intercity rail passenger network and the nation’s only provider of high-speed rail with its Acela Express service in the Northeast Corridor.”

Risch told the forum the UTU supports Amtrak’s Next Generation Plan for development of high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor, which would include speeds as fast as 220-mph and significantly reduced travel times.

“Amtrak’s plan would support 44,000 jobs annually over the 25-year construction period and some 120,000 permanent jobs,” Risch said.

“If we were instead to build more highways, we would have to build eight new lanes of Interstate between Washington, D.C., and Boston to accommodate the same number of travelers Amtrak will carry on the Northeast Corridor upon completion of the Next Generation Plan,” Risch said.

“Amtrak,” said Risch, “has extensive experience operating passenger trains in America, has long-standing relationships with the freight railroads and has a proven track-record partnering with state and local governments to provide passenger rail service,” Risch said.

“Most importantly, Amtrak employs the experienced conductors, engineers, on-board service workers, machinists, signalmen, train dispatchers, and others who know how to run a railroad,” Risch said. “These are the best trained passenger-rail workers in the nation, and Amtrak is the best choice to implement any high-speed rail program.”

WASHINGTON — The Federal Railroad Administration will soon publish final rules instituting conductor certification and imposing new hours-of-service limitations on intercity passenger-train and commuter employees in safety sensitive positions.

FRA Associate Administrator for Safety Jo Strang made the announcement at the UTU’s regional meeting June 21 in San Antonio, Texas.

She observed that since former UTU Illinois State Legislative Director Joe Szabo became FRA administrator, the partnership between the UTU and the FRA in seeking improved workplace safety “has certainly been strengthened.”

Conductor certification, which becomes effective Jan. 1, 2012, “recognizes the level of professionalism required by our conductors today,” Strang said.

A notice of proposed rulemaking on conductor certification was published in November and is the product of a collaborative effort through the FRA’s Rail Safety Advisory Committee, which includes carriers, rail labor and the FRA.

UTU members serving on the RSAC Conductor Certification Working Group include Local 1470 Chairperson David Brooks, General Chairperson (CSX, GO 049) John Lesniewski, Local 538 Legislative Rep Ron Parsons, Local 645 Local Chairperson Vinnie Tessitore, National Legislative Director James Stem, Alternate National Legislative Director John Risch, and UTU safety consultant Larry Mann.

Strang said the passenger hours-of-service regulation will apply sleep science and fatigue management to railroad hours-of-service, “which is the first time in our industry’s history that this has been done. It recognizes the inherent differences between freight and passenger service.”

For example, intercity passenger and commuter railroads operate on fixed schedules. Commuter railroads operate primarily during daylight hours, and most commuter employees return to their home terminals every night.

The passenger hours-of-service regulation will “balance the need to manage fatigue with the need to maximize income,” Strang said. “The rule also recognizes the significant safety contribution that a defined start time has for the employees involved. When the employee knows when they must report for service, they can manage the necessary lifestyle adjustments. The outstanding safety record of our passenger and commuter rail operations is an excellent example of just what it means to have a regular start time.”

Strang also mentioned risk reduction programs, acknowledging that their FRA-sponsored implementation on some railroads “have earned a bad reputation. Let me be clear about FRA’s viewpoint,” Strang said. “Building strong safety cultures can only be accomplished through the establishment and nurturing of voluntary risk mitigation policies and procedures — setting realistic benchmarks and milestones, and favoring constructive corrective behavior over punitive discipline. To be clear, both railroads and labor have to define boundaries since compliance with the rules is at the heart of safety.

“Railroads have had the same culture for 180 years,” Strang said. “We have been trying to change it for five years.”

Going to bat for Amtrak and its dedicated work force, UTU Alternate Legislative Director John Risch Jan. 27 outlined for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee reasons why an intercity national rail passenger system is essential for Americans and worthy of continued federal funding.

The T&I field hearing was held in New York City’s historic Grand Central Terminal, with T&I Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) and Rail Subcommittee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) in charge. Among those participating with Risch were Amtrak President Joe Boardman and Transportation Communications Union President Bob  Scardelletti.

Mica advocated increased private-sector investment in Amtrak’s 437-mile Northeast Corridor, which operates between Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Amtrak Acela trains now provide the highest speed rail in America over the Northeast Corridor (a maximum of 150 mph), but Boardman is pushing for a federally backed effort to implement true high-speed rail on the corridor, with trains capable of speeds up to 220 mph.

Said Mica: “Amtrak’s current plan to bring high speed rail to the Northeast Corridor would require $117 billion, and would not be completed until the year 2040. This slow-speed schedule for bringing true high-speed rail service to the Northeast Corridor will never allow President Obama to meet his goal announced in Tuesday’s State of the Union address that, ‘Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percet of Americans access to high-speed rail.'”

Boardman countered that “Amtrak was created by Congress precisely because the privately owned railroads could no longer sustain the vital public service of intercity passenger rail. No other operator or company is prepared to mobilize to take over the operation of the Northeast Corridor,” Boardman said. “Nor are they funded to cover the long-term capital and operating costs.

“It is critical for the Northeast Corridor to remain a public asset for the generations of Americans that are depending on our collective leadership to secure their future,” Boardman said. “It is about connecting the major metropolitan communities of the Northeast, and also connecting the Northeast to the rest of the United States.

“As a result of Amtrak’s stewardship and improvement of the Northeast Corridor infrastructure, train speeds have increased from 90 mph to 150 mph, America’s only high-speed rail service was introduced, and additional capacity was created to support significantly expanded commuter rail operations,” Boardman said. 

Risch, representing the UTU, made the following points:

  • The government has put nearly 70 times more money into highways and aviation than into railroads.
  • The high cost of fuel, along with traffic and airport congestion, is drawing travelers back to trains for commuting and travel between cities as much as 500 miles apart.
  • A Pew Research poll found that the number of Americans who enjoy driving fell by 10 percentage points over a recent 15 year period — and highway traffic congestion, rather than higher fuel prices — was the reason.
  • The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials predicts that by 2020, some 90 percent of urban Interstate highways will be at or exceeding capacity.
  • Philadelphia officials estimate 50 additional flights daily would be needed to handle Amtrak passengers arriving and departing from that city.
  • Federal transportation officials estimate that without Amtrak service into Manhattan, 20 additional highway lanes, 10 new tunnels under the Hudson River and hundreds of acres of new more parking would be required.
  • Civil engineers estimate that two railroad tracks have the capacity to carry as many people each hour as 16 lanes of highway; and 300 miles of railroad use less land than a single commercial airport.
  • Although Amtrak collects substantial revenue from the fare box, it competes against heavily subsidized highways and commercial aviation, leaving Amtrak insufficient dollars to purchase urgently needed new rolling stock and locomotives, improve facilities and increase service availability.
  • Railroads require less land than new highways and airports, they are less expensive to construct, they are more fuel efficient than highway or air transport, they are environmentally preferable to all competing forms of motorized transportation, and they are notably safer than highway travel.
  • The Department of Transportation’s inspector general said in congressional testimony in 2005:

“Long-distance trains carry only a small number of end-to-end riders. Of the 3.9 million long-distance riders in fiscal year 2004, only 527,000 rode the entire length of the route … three million riders traveled along portions of the route.

“While eliminating long-distance service [a perennial money loser for Amtrak] may seem appealing from a federal budgetary standpoint, especially with the large deficits, it ignores the mobility needs of rural areas of the country and the benefits passenger rail provides.”