Chesterton Tribune

NICTD seeks to cut South Shore costs by boosting workload for conductors

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South Shore management and a member of the union that represents approximately 85 conductors, collectors and engineers clashed Friday over new boarding procedures for rush-hour trains that would require some trainmen to supervise three rather than two commuter cars each.

South Shore officials made the cost-saving proposal to the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, a four-county public agency that owns and operates the railroad.

NICTD board member Dennis Burke, a United Transportation Union Local 1526 member who represents South Shore employees, told the board, “If this is implemented, the UTU will take action.”

Burke later declined to specify what action might be taken by the union but said a well-placed international union official authorized the warning.

The South Shore had hoped May 3 to implement the change, which would result in not all train doors opening at all stops and some doors not opening at all in the last two cars of certain eight-car trains.

After Burke and South Shore chief operating officer Jeff Lowe got into a disagreement over whether the union already had agreed to the work-rule changes, NICTD chairman David Niezgodski, a St. Joseph County Commissioner, assigned himself and board members Sam Melnick and Paul Pobereyko, both commuters, as a committee to work with union and management to resolve the stalemate.

Melnick said he had mixed emotions about the proposal. He predicted the door restrictions will cause passengers confusion and inconvenience, yet as a board member he understands the need to cut costs. The proposal would eliminate some overtime for union workers.

NICTD general manager Gerald Hanas said some railroads have one trainman responsible for from three to even six or eight train cars, and that the UTU local has agreed to increase productivity. After the meeting Burke said the union agreed to three train cars for collectors but not conductors.

NICTD’s Dario Brezene later said of 22 previous times a South Shore train had to go out with one trainman covering three cars, none of those trains arrived late at their destinations.

Safety, not on-time performance, was a concern for Elvin Schacht of Michigan City, a retired 33-year South Shore conductor in the audience Friday. “With luggage, packages, coats and kids, to take care of three cars, that’s a dream. Never, no, for safety alone,” said Schacht.

Burke, a conductor, agreed with Schacht. “For homeland security railroads are adding people. Now I’ll have 300 people instead of 200 people. Tell me how I can safely evaluate people. Are (South Shore officials) sacrificing safety for money?”

After the meeting NICTD board member William Carmichael, Porter County Council president, said Burke’s reaction to the proposal came as a surprise. “I was under the understanding this was part of negotiations with the union.” As for the union’s warning, “No one likes to be threatened and I took that as somewhat of a minor threat,” said Carmichael. “You can’t strike a railroad like this.”

He noted modern public railroads are becoming more automated and any time management proposes work-rule changes to operate more cost-effectively, there’s conflict. However, “There has to be mutual agreement by both parties under the contract.”

NICTD board member Porter County Commissioner John Evans was absent.

NICTD had hoped to have the boarding procedures and staffing with the union worked out before May 30, when schedule changes are slated to go into effect due to Metra’s proposed switch from 59th Street to its new station and platforms at 57th Street in downtown Chicago. The changes would affect some arrivals and departures at Dune Park Station in Porter County. The NICTD board’s next meeting is May 21.

Neighborhood train watch

NICTD Police Chief Robert Byrd described the Transit Watch program launched March 17 on all South Shore trains. Based on community policing concepts, commuters as well as ticket agents, track workers, line and signal crews, office and train personnel all are asked to be alert to any unusual persons, circumstances or activities on or near the trains.

NICTD received a nearly $800,000 Homeland Security grant to support its safety activities and programs.

Byrd said this will allow police presence on NICTD property 24 hours a day, seven days a week and random inspection of facilities and trains. He noted the programs were set in motion months ago and are not a knee-jerk reaction to the recent Madrid commuter train bombings.

Pamphlets and posters in NICTD rail cars and stations urge commuters to be alert for suspicious behavior, packages and persons and to report any concerns to train employees or police immediately. Preparedness tips also are given and emergency contact cards are provided.

In other business, NICTD approved an agreement with the City of South Bend to transfer a portion of unused South Shore right-of-way on Westmoor Street and Bendix Drive in exchange for $10 and the city agreeing to cut the grass and weed the area. NICTD operations now are based in the South Bend Regional Airport; the South Shore station is used by Amtrak and NICTD has no plans to sell the station.

Catenary, signal advances

Long-awaited upgrades of the South Shore’s aging signal system and electrical catenary power supply advanced when Edwards & Kelsey of Illinois was hired to provide design review, construction management and related services for both projects, which together carry an approximately $80 million pricetag.

NICTD board member Will Smith of the Lake County Council balked at approving the proposed $1,782,642 Edwards & Kelsey contract based on a verbal presentation. He requested and by meeting’s end the board was given a detailed bid analysis and award resolution prior to its unanimous vote.

Chief electrical engineer Victor Babin said five proposals were received and ranked based on several criteria. Melnick questioned how realistic the Edwards & Kelsey bid was for the three-year project when the next lowest bid was $3.8 million. “It sounds to me like it may be a low-ball figure,” said Melnick.

Hanas said the other bids are likely too high. He noted Edwards & Kelsey has worked for NICTD before and were found to be efficient and experienced when dealing with public railroads. The contract was approved not to exceed $1,960,934 including a 10 percent contingency.

Hanas said the railroad needs very careful coordination of the signal and catenary upgrades to minimize service interruptions for passengers.

Also Friday, the board approved negotiating with Toshiba to extend an existing contract to convert the railroad’s four remaining DC-powered passenger cars to the new AC propulsion system, and approved several bids for annual track material and services.



Posted 3/29/2004