INPEDENDENCE, Ohio, March 20 — Three BLET General Committees of Adjustment (GCAs) on BNSF Railway filed suit yesterday in the United States District Court for the District of Colorado to stop BNSF’s unilateral consolidation of road freight service between Denver and Cheyenne, La Junta, Pueblo, Sterling, and Trinidad; and between Trinidad and Denver/Texline.
As part of this consolidation, BNSF has placed all locomotive engineers under a single collective bargaining agreement of the railroad’s choosing, which it had no legal or contractual authority to do. This has resulted in significant changes to wages and working conditions for many of the engineers working in the territory. The GCAs’ lawsuit seeks restoration of the status quo until statutorily-mandated bargaining is completed.
The legal action comes as serious safety concerns have arisen regarding BNSF’s actions. The railroad’s local managers are harassing and intimidating locomotive engineers to force them into making runs over territories they are not familiar with, a dangerous practice that puts lives at risk.
Training trips are necessary for locomotive engineers who have relocated from other areas and are not familiar with the territory. With the Denver area consolidations, many BLET engineers and trainmen are being required to qualify and/or familiarize on new runs and new routes. In fact, many of these engineers and trainmen have never been over portions of the new territory. In many cases, however, they are being told that a single trip will adequately qualify/familiarize them. A similar problem is being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board as a possible contributing factor in the fatal Amtrak derailment that occurred near Tacoma, Washington late last year.
The BNSF trains affected by these consolidations carry millions of tons of freight and deadly cargo such as chlorine, poisonous-by-inhalation chemicals, and toxic-by-inhalation chemicals. Forcing engineers and trainmen onto unfamiliar territory is risky and potentially deadly.
“Denying locomotive engineers and trainmen sufficient training trips over rail lines on which they have little or no operating experience has the potential to cause a major accident and/or fatality,” BLET National President Dennis R. Pierce said. “Once again railroad worker and public safety have been forced to take a back seat to railroad profitability.”
“Some folks learn faster than others,” BLET General Chairman J. Alan Holdcraft wrote in a January 30 letter to BNSF management, which was also signed by BLET General Chairmen Jerry LaPrath, Jeff Thurman and Bobby Brown. “While one engineer may need 2 or 3 trips to become familiar enough with the run to operate without a pilot, others may need significantly more training to reach the same level of proficiency.”
As of mid-March, BNSF still had not responded to the letter. This type of management indifference to safety helped trigger the BLET lawsuit.
At the same time, local BNSF managers have repeatedly threatened engineers and trainmen who have requested additional familiarization trips. “We have written reports of employees being called in ‘on the carpet’ and being told that they ‘don’t want to be one of those folks’ who requests more training,” Holdcraft wrote in the January 30 letter. “We will not, and we cannot, tolerate threats made against our members.”