A daily fact of life for train crews is transportation to and from terminals in shuttle-vans operated by firms under contract to railroads.
Over the past year, four crew members died and another was seriously injured in two separate accidents while riding in shuttle vans.
Shuttle-van drivers are almost always non-union and required to work long hours under horrendous working conditions. Understandably, driver turnover is substantial, which has frustrated previous efforts to organize these drivers.
Our National Legislative Office and UTU state legislative directors have long fought for better shuttle-van safety, seeking regulations requiring improved training, hours-of-service limitations and better pay and benefits for the drivers.
In several states, the UTU has been successful in gaining passage of legislation regulating shuttle vans, to include minimum driver-hiring qualifications, maximum hours-of-service limitations, driver drug-testing requirements, fully operational seat belts, annual state DOT inspections of the vans, and state DOT certification of vehicle maintenance inspections and repair records.
Shock resulted last month when Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.) was successful in adding an amendment to a highway-funding bill in the House of Representatives that would strip shuttle-van drivers, operating in interstate commerce, of minimum wage and overtime protection – a significant step backward in the push for improved shuttle-van safety.
Equally shocking was a news report that the president of one shuttle-van service – Professional Transportation, Inc. – had donated, along with his wife, more than $55,000 in political contributions last year to Republican lawmakers, including Bucshon.
The news report observed that many van-shuttle drivers are paid minimum wage – which no longer would be their wage floor — and sometimes spend 60 hours a week behind the wheel. Other shuttle-van firms that would benefit from this Bucshon amendment include RailCrew Xpress, Renzenberger and Coach America.
Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who is working to kill the Bucshon amendment, said, “It’s outrageous that House Republicans are trying to take away overtime protections for a class of workers at the behest of a special interest.”
The UTU National Legislative Office is working with other members of the House, who similarly recognize the public safety implications of the Bucshon amendment, to ensure it does not survive.
KELSO, Wash. – Shuttle van operator Coach America Crew Transport has been fined more than $13,000 by the State of Washington for alleged safety lapses in the wake of a train-van accident in March that killed a BNSF engineer, a conductor trainee and the van driver, and seriously injured a UTU-member conductor.
The shuttle van, transporting BNSF crew members to an away-from-home terminal, was struck by a BNSF train at a private crossing in Kelso.
According to the Vancouver Columbian, Coach America Crew Transport was fined by the state for “failing to tailor its accident prevention program to the types of hazards drivers may encounter” and for “not implementing and enforcing safety training programs for employees and not providing on-the-job instruction to employees about hazards.” Coach America said it would appeal the violations.
A spokesperson for the State Department of Labor and Industries told the Columbian, “This is a company who has 260 drivers in our state. When we looked at their accident prevention program, we didn’t see any language about driving.”
Killed in the accident were conductor trainee Chris Loehr, 28, of Seattle; engineer and BLET member Thomas J. Kenny, 58, a 22-year BNSF employee of Shoreline, Wash.; and the Coach America Crew Transport driver, Steven Dean Sebastian, 60.
Critically injured was UTU member and conductor Dwight L. Hauck, 51, of Auburn, Wash., a member and trustee of UTU Local 324 with 22 years of railroad service.
The Longview Daily News reported at the time of the accident that the shuttle van had just departed a BNSF yard at Kelso and was crossing the tracks at the private crossing when struck by a northbound freight train with a consist of three locomotives and 106 carloads of grain. The Seattle-bound train had originated in Crookston, Minn.
Following the collision, the van plunged down a 25-foot embankment, landing some 50 feet from the highway-rail grade-crossing.
The BNSF operating employees in the van reportedly had brought a train from Seattle to Kelso and were being transported by Coach America Crew Transport to overnight lodging.
The Federal Railroad Administration is still investigating the accident.
FRAZER, Mont. — A BNSF conductor and UTU member, along with a BNSF engineer, were killed late Friday night, Aug. 19, when the crew van in which they were riding was involved in a two-vehicle collision on Highway 2 just east of here in eastern Montana.
This was the eighth UTU member fatality in 2011, and the fifth since July 25.
BNSF identified the dead as conductor Blaine Mack, 56, a member of UTU Local 1059 (Minot, N.D.), with 36 years’ service, and engineer Todd Burckhard, 35, with six years’ service. Both resided in Minot. Burckhard previously was a UTU member.
Frazer is some 110 miles west of Williston, N.D., and about 20 miles west of Wolf Point, Mont.
The Billings Gazette reports the westbound Chevrolet Suburban crew van in which Mack and Burckhard were riding collided with an eastbound Dodge pickup that crossed into the westbound lane. The newspaper, quoting the Montana Highway Patrol, reported the Chevrolet crew van “swerved into the eastbound lane to avoid a collision, but the Dodge’s driver corrected it back into the [eastbound] lane at the last moment. The Dodge then crashed into the Chevrolet’s passenger side.”
The unidentified drivers of the Coach America-owned crew van and the pickup were hospitalized with unspecified injuries. The accident is under investigation by the Montana Highway Patrol.
The Coach America crew-van driver reportedly had picked up Mack and Burckhard at Oswego, Mont., at BNSF milepost 251.8, and was transporting them to their away-from-home terminal at Glasgow, Mont.
In March, in Kelso, Wash., a conductor trainee and engineer, along with a Coach America crew-van driver were killed when the van was struck by a BNSF freight train at a private crossing. The conductor trainee, Chris Loehr, had not yet joined the UTU. Seriously injured in that accident was UTU conductor and Local 324 member and trustee Dwight L. Hauck, 51, of Auburn, Wash.
This eighth UTU-member fatality in 2011 equals the total number of UTU members killed in each of the two previous years.