Rails See Safety Switch

Rails See Safety Switch

When President Obama reached into the labor ranks to choose the next chief of the Federal Railroad Administration, he handed the job of top rail safety regulator to someone who has spent years pursuing industry violations.

Joseph C. Szabo, the Illinois state legislative director for the United Transportation Union, was already working at the UTU’s Washington, D.C., offices after the recent death of the union’s top federal lobbyist. He had been helping to draft federal regulations since 2005, when the international union assigned him to the FRA’s rail safety advisory committee.

Still, no rail labor official has ever headed the FRA, and the change-is-here appointment comes as rail shippers, unions and their allies in Congress are pushing regulators to scrutinize carriers more closely. It also comes as the FRA will be implementing a far-reaching new safety law passed last year.

For railroads and their shipper customers, the nomination means the carriers are likely to face tough operating oversight even without additional legislation.

With some 125,000 active and retired members, the train conductor-based UTU is the single largest rail labor organization in the nation. Szabo’s work from his Chicago office reflected the union’s feistiness, pushing complaints that sometimes led to FRA fines against carriers over how they used union crews or allowed supervisors to step into roles reserved for union employees.

Under Szabo the UTU in Illinois wrestled with Canadian National Railway over hours-of-service rules, and Iowa Interstate Railroad over who could run a locomotive on its main line. At other times, the union battled Norfolk Southern Railway, Indiana Harbor Belt Railway, BNSF Railway, Union Pacific Railroad and Alton & Southern Railway.

Szabo also worked for Democratic candidates in the last election, and helped organize rank-and-file efforts to send Obama to the White House.

UTU International President Malcolm B. Futhey said Szabo’s appointment “is a validation that this Obama administration is a friend of organized labor.”
A fifth-generation railroader who got into the family business in 1976, Szabo held a series of posts in his UTU local before heading the state legislative board in 1996.

The heads of two national trade groups that represent the railroads saluted Szabo’s FRA nomination, emphasizing he is clearly experienced for the job.

“We congratulate Joe Szabo on his nomination as administrator,” said Edward R. Hamberger, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, which counts the biggest railroads in its membership. “He brings a wealth of experience in the railroad industry to this assignment.”

At the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association, President Richard F. Timmons said, “Szabo’s railroad career spans work in both freight and passenger operations, as well as union leadership, which combined, prepare him to take the helm at FRA.”

Contact John D. Boyd at jboyd@joc.com.