Engineers oppose Philadelphia transit agency's bid to keep waiver from federal work time rule

Union officials representing engineers operating the Philadelphia-area transit system told federal regulators Tuesday that they are concerned about safety if a waiver from a rule designed to limit fatigue by rail employees is renewed.

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority was granted a waiver more than two years ago from a rule that counts the time employees spend getting to distant work locations as work time. Unions representing SEPTA engineers oppose the agency's request for the Federal Railroad Administration to renew the waiver.

SEPTA said the change has saved money and increased productivity by giving the agency needed flexibility to schedule crews to work out of several locations. The agency also said it has seen no safety issues or engineer fatigue since the waiver was granted in October 2012.

Some engineers, however, told the panel that they had been called to work on short notice after just putting in 12-hour days, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Tracie Hand said she was once called at 8:30 p.m. to operate an overnight work train starting at 11 p.m. even though she had been up since 3 a.m. operating another route.

"There's a great chance of fatigue," she said.

John F. Lauser, SEPTA's senior director of rail transportation, said the agency is trying to reduce the number of engineers required to work six days a week by training more operators. The current class of 18 engineers is the largest ever.

Stephen Bruno, national secretary-treasurer of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, said the union didn't originally oppose the waiver request with the understanding that members would get eight hours' notice before being called in, but that hasn't always happened.

He said there are other ways to address the company's productivity concerns, such as having engineers report to suburban hubs rather than the main Philadelphia location, but the company has no incentive to negotiate as long as the waiver is in effect.

Paul Pokrowka, of the union that represents 380 SEPTA conductors and other workers, said continuing the waiver "would place riders in harm's way."

Ron Hymes, the panel's safety officer conducting Tuesday's hearing, said a decision is likely by June or July.