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Speeches

Remarks to the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen Fourth National Convention
Jennifer Homendy
 
10/3/2018

Thank you, President Pierce, for inviting me here today, and for your unwavering dedication to improving rail safety on behalf of your members.

I also want to thank President Hoffa, Secretary-Treasurer Hall, and one of my favorite people, BLET’s Vice President & National Legislative Representative, John Tolman. I have spent many, many years in the trenches with John, Tom Pontolillo, Vince Verna, and Bob Hagen fighting for working families, so it is truly an honor to be here today. I say that, not just as a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board, but because I’m also a former Teamster.

From 1999 to 2004, I worked for President Hoffa as a Legislative Representative in the Government Affairs Department of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, focusing on international trade and transportation issues. I was also a proud member of Teamsters Local 70 in Oakland, California.

Six weeks ago, on August 20, I was sworn in as the 44th Member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). I want to take a moment to give you a brief background on what we do. The NTSB is an independent federal agency charged by Congress with investigating accidents in all modes of transportation, including rail. Our mission is to find out what happened, why it happened, and determine what safety improvements are needed to prevent a similar accident from happening in the future. We have over 400 hardworking employees focused on our mission, including Erik Strickland who is here with me today. The NTSB has five Members—including myself—that are appointed by the President and confirmed by the United States Senate to oversee the Board’s activities.

When we investigate an accident, we usually invite the organizations that were most impacted to become part of the investigative process through our party system. The BLET participates in almost every rail accident we investigate through a safety taskforce, which is headed by Steve Bruno and Carl Fields.

At the end of every investigation, we publish a report that includes our findings from the investigation and the probable cause of the accident. We also make safety recommendations to federal and state agencies and outside entities, including the BLET, that we believe, if implemented, will improve safety and prevent similar accidents from happening again.

But my relationship with the BLET began long before I joined the NTSB. In 2004, I left the Teamsters to join the Democrats on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in the US House of Representatives. As you may know, every Member of Congress belongs to two or three committees in the House. Each committee is broken up further into subcommittees. Over the last 14 years, I’ve served as the Democratic Staff Director of the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials; meaning, anything dealing with railroads, pipelines, and hazardous materials, including oversight of the industry and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) went through my subcommittee.

Around the time I joined the committee in 2004, there was a series of major rail accidents in communities across the country—Minot, North Dakota; Graniteville, South Carolina; Shepherd, Texas; Macdona, Texas; and Placentia, California. The NTSB investigated all of those accidents and issued some of the same safety recommendations that the Board had already issued for decades, but no one acted on them. What I mean by that is, had the Federal Railroad Administration or the railroads implemented the NTSB’s safety recommendations, those accidents may never have occurred.

So, I set out to draft a rail safety bill to make sure those safety recommendations were implemented. At the time, the Democrats were in the minority, so we didn’t control the agenda. This meant we could introduce a bill, but we couldn’t move it unless there was bipartisan support for it and, in this case, there was no bipartisan support for moving a bill.

But in 2007, the Democrats took the majority and I had a meeting that would set the tone for the rest of my career on the Hill, and which ultimately solidified my strong desire to join the NTSB and work tirelessly to improve safety.

That meeting was with John Tolman and Tom Pontillilo, who came in to see my boss, Congressman Jim Oberstar, a Democrat from the iron range of Minnesota, a staunch labor union supporter, and quite possibly the most pro-safety Member of Congress at the time. He was also the new Chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

John and Tom brought two people with them who will always have a special place in my heart: Steve Seeling and Rebecca (Fortmeyer) Schmidt. They were the parents of Chris Seeling, a locomotive engineer who died on January 6, 2005, in Graniteville, South Carolina. The train Chris was operating encountered a misaligned switch, which diverted the train from the main line onto an industry track, where it struck an unoccupied, parked train.

Chris’s train was transporting chlorine. Three of the chlorine tank cars derailed, one of which was breached, releasing chlorine gas. Chris and eight other people died as a result of chlorine gas inhalation, including six workers from Avondale Mills, a textile plant that was adjacent to the track, a truck driver outside the plant, and a nearby resident. About 500 people were hospitalized for inhalation injuries, and over 5,000 people were evacuated. The accident was devastating and one that I will never forget.

Chris was only 28 years old, and he was your brother. At the time of his death, he was Secretary-Treasurer of BLET Division 85 in West Columbia, South Carolina. As a mother, I cannot imagine a greater loss than the loss of your child, and here were Chris’s parents, asking us to move legislation that would require the railroads to implement the NTSB safety recommendations that would’ve prevented Chris’ death. One of those recommendations was positive train control. Had PTC been implemented on that line, that accident never would have occurred. The NTSB has issued one safety recommendation after another to the railroads to implement PTC, or some form of it, for nearly 50 years.

Chris wasn’t the only railroad worker who died on the job in 2005; according to the FRA, 24 other railroad employees were killed on the job that year. In fact, over the last 10 years, 159 railroad workers have lost their lives on duty, and nearly 42,000 others have been injured. To me, one death is too many. How many of you have lost a brother or sister on-the-job or known someone who has? No one should lose their life earning a paycheck, especially when actions can be taken to prevent such a tragedy.

So, Chairman Oberstar took action. We crafted a bill to address the most pressing safety issues before us. The bill sought to address fatigue—a serious problem that is still a major concern.

It updated laws that were nearly 100 years old on work and rest schedules. It reduced limbo time, prevented communications from railroads to train crews during their 10 hours of rest, and required the railroads to develop and implement comprehensive programs to manage worker fatigue.

The bill also required railroads to develop and implement strong safety management systems so they are continually evaluating risks and taking immediate action to address them before an accident occurs.

The bill required railroads to provide emergency escape breathing apparatus to train crews transporting toxic chemicals – which would’ve helped Chris escape – and it required the railroads to install devices in dark territory that would automatically indicate to train crews the position of switches. And the bill—for the first time ever—required the railroads to implement PTC. All of these came from NTSB safety recommendations.

After a series of congressional hearings, many of which the BLET testified at, we introduced our bill in May 2007, and then we spent the next year and a half negotiating it, but Congress didn’t take final action until a tragic accident occurred in Chatsworth, California, in which a Metrolink train collided head-on with a UP train, killing 25 people and injuring 102 others.

We just passed the 10th anniversary of that accident, and all the issues I mentioned—including PTC, which would have prevented that accident—have yet to be fully implemented. Let me explain that: After the House and Senate pass a bill (which we did) and the President signs it (Bush did), that bill becomes law. The FRA then has the job of implementing it through regulations. Unfortunately, the FRA hasn’t taken final action on most of what was required in the law.

As the newest Member of the NTSB, I will continue to advocate for full implementation of PTC and other NTSB safety recommendations, and I commit to each and every one of you that I will work tirelessly to ensure that you and your members are safe. But there’s something you can do, too. You and your members are on the front lines every single day when it comes to safety. Safety begins and ends with you. I need you to continue fighting day and night for your safety, for the safety of other train crews, for the safety of other crafts and classes on the railroad, and for the safety of passengers. I need you to help me get to zero fatalities and injuries on our nation’s railroads.

In closing, I want to thank you for having me here today and, once again, thank President Pierce for his kind invitation. I will be around for the remainder of the day and I encourage you to introduce yourself and ask me any questions you may have. And if we don’t speak, I wish you all a productive—and safe—convention.