OPINION-EDITORIAL: New law improves railroad employee safety

Without railroads, the world would be an altogether different place. It’s nearly impossible to overstate the importance of the railroad for our economy, travel and culture. Everything from food, motor vehicles, to lumber and energy supplies are transported on the railways. Our society could not function without them.

When the Northern Pacific Railroad announced in 1873 its Northwest terminus would be in Tacoma, the city and county grew rapidly. The railroad continues to play an important role in the communities of the 28th District. We owe a debt of gratitude to the generations of railroad workers who have kept the trains running safely and on time.

In recent years, environmental and public safety impact concerns have dominated the conversation about rail transport. In order to see improvements continue in the management of rail systems, we need to take care of the people who work on them. The safety of railroad employees and the public are intricately linked. We depend on railroad workers to maintain and provide for public safety when transporting goods and people.

Four years ago, a tragic accident in Southwest Washington highlighted the need for common sense rules to protect railroad employees. The incident uncovered a lesser-known hazard of the job, not in the performance of their work, but when employees are being shuttled around.

After finishing their shift, a group of railroad workers in Kelso, Washington was ready for some well-deserved rest. They were picked up by a Coach America shuttle van hired by BNSF Railway to take them to their hotel in Vancouver. Investigators say a parked train obscured the shuttle van drivers’ view when exiting the yard, causing him to drive through a rail crossing into an oncoming 106-car train bound for Seattle. Witnesses said they heard the train whistle blow right before the crash. The shuttle van landed at the bottom of a 25-foot embankment, more than 50 feet from the rail intersection. Three men were killed, and a fourth was critically injured.

Most transport shuttle work is outsourced. Until recently, railroad employees did not have insurance coverage if an accident was caused by a third party. They are insured at work, but not when being transported. Drivers working for outside vendors hired by the railroad are often overworked and underpaid. This has led to several transport accidents going to and from railroad work sites.

House Bill 1105, recently signed into law by the governor, expands the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission’s (UTC) regulatory authority for the transport of railroad workers to include vehicles carrying 15 or fewer passengers. As a co-sponsor of the legislation, I was glad to see the train crew transport safety measure get through the legislative process. The new law mandates the UTC’s regulation of driver qualifications, hours of service by drivers, passenger safety, and drug testing requirements. In addition, it sets a minimum insurance and financial responsibility coverage amount for contract crew transportation vehicles.

Clear communication, multiple layers of safety, better insurance coverage, and rigorous alcohol and drug testing are critical to keeping railroad workers safe when they are being transported – ultimately keeping rail crews and the public out of harm’s way.

Thank you for the privilege of representing you in Olympia. As always, I welcome your comments, questions and concerns. Please feel free to come by my district office at 1717 Lafayette Street, Steilacoom. You can also call (253) 301-2278 or send email to dick.muri@leg.wa.gov.

State Representative Dick Muri, 28th Legislative District
424 John L. O'Brien Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
(360) 786-7890 | Toll-free: (800) 562-6000