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Rick Shapiro
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President’s High-Speed Rail Initiative: Devil May Be in Details with FELA/Labor Protections

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When President Obama passed the Recovery and Reinvestment Act last year, $8 billion was allotted for high-speed light rail expansion. The president also requested Congress to provide another $1 billion a year for five years to pay for building 100-to-600-mile-long intercity rail corridors to accommodate trains traveling up to 150 mph, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

It’s a bold initiative aimed at reducing congestion on our highways and generating a new sector for job/economic growth. Reducing congestion on the highways could reduce the number of major car wrecks and this could provide a whole new career sector for track repairmen and engineers. Not only will we need workers to build the track, but workers to operate and coordinate the high-speed trains.

Here’s a video of President Obama talking about the high-speed rail initiative…


However, what type of laws and regulations will protect theese workers? It’s a question that hasn’t received a straightforward answer. We know President Obama supports rail workers being covered by federal laws. He recently asked Congress to give the Federal Transit Administration authority to impose safety standards on subways, light rail and other urban train systems.

The federal government has regulated airplanes, Amtrak and even ferries, but a law passed in 1965 prohibits federal regulation of subways, according to the Washington Post. Safety oversight of light-rail and subway systems is currently delegated to 27 regional bodies controlled by the states. Though, this law was passed before Metro was built and the idea of light-rail was a mere fantasy. One of the biggest challenges to determining applicable law has to do with the aforementioned clash between state regulations and federal regulations. Yahoo News reports some of the light-rail project money will go to as many as 10 regions:

  1. Northern New England line
  2. Empire line running across New York State (east to west)
  3. Keystone corridor through Pennsylvania (east to west)
  4. Southeast network connecting the District of Columbia to Florida and the Gulf Coast
  5. Gulf Coast line extending from eastern Texas to western Alabama
  6. A corridor in central and southern Florida
  7. A Texas-to-Oklahoma line
  8. A California corridor from San Francisco to Los Angeles
  9. A corridor in the Pacific Northwest.
  10. The Northeast corridor between Washington and Boston

These projects are massive in scope crisscrossing states. Therefore, it would make sense that the workers building the interstate light-rail track would be protected by federal law. However, railroad companies asked the Florida state government to allow workers to be state employees, subject to worker compensation, avoiding FELA law. Railroad companies even had the audacity to ask for immunity from liability in case a light-rail worker suffers a serious injury. Fortunately, this request was denied, but it illustrates the tactics some railroad companies will take to try and avoid properly protecting workers.

This leads to another important question – who will own the light-rail track? Will it be a federal system akin to Amtrak or owned privately by a big railroad company like Norfolk Southern or CSX? Could there be a public-private partnership? As you can see, the idea of a massive interstate light-rail system is a great idea with a lot of positives, but the details of actually making this idea a reality gets very complicated when you delve into the details.

Here’s a video of a recent public event with President Obama and Vice President Biden promoting high-speed rail projects…


About the Editors: Shapiro, Cooper, Lewis & Appleton personal injury law firm (VA-NC law offices ) edits the injury law blogs Virginia Beach Injuryboard , Norfolk Injuryboard , and Northeast North Carolina Injuryboard as a pro bono service to consumers.