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SEPTA and Regional Rail union are fighting over pay and managers filling in as engineers

Contract negotiations between SEPTA and the union representing the engineers who drive Regional Rail trains are at an impasse over wages and the authority’s decades-old practice of using management employees as fill-in engineers, union leaders say.

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) has for years been trying to win higher wages for Regional Rail engineers, who have the lowest pay on U.S. passenger railroad systems, according to the union. Another demand: that SEPTA hire engineers to replace those who have left for other railroads — and stop relying on salaried managers to pick up shifts for stipends.

“It’s obscene what’s going on,” said Donald Hill, general chairman of BLET Division 71, the bargaining unit for SEPTA engineers. “This is a hot issue for our members. And if the opportunity arises where we can take the appropriate action, we will.”

The engineers’ contract expired March 2, but, by federal law, railroad employees stay on the job and begin talks with a mediator on a new one. If the sides can’t agree, the matter can ultimately be decided by an emergency board appointed by President Joe Biden — as happened with a dispute between freight railroads and unions last year.

“We are committed to good-faith negotiations on a new contract” for the engineers and other unions, said SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch.

This will be a busy year for labor talks at SEPTA. Contracts are also due for TWU Local 234, representing bus, trolley, and subway operators and mechanics, as well as Regional Rail conductors.

Regional Rail engineers have long been concerned their wages lag behind their peers.

After 15 years on the job, SEPTA locomotive engineers are paid $39 an hour — compared to an average of about $50 an hour for their counterparts at other passenger railroads in the Northeast United States, said James P. Louis, a national vice president for the BLET union.

The wage comparison is based on pay at Amtrak, NJ Transit, the Long Island Railroad, Metro-North, and PATH, which links Newark, Jersey City, and Hoboken to Manhattan, he said.

Managers in SEPTA’s rail division with locomotive-engineer licenses have been scheduled to be on-call to run trains on weekends and holidays through January 2024 when union crews are not available, according to a roster emailed to employees in February by the senior director of railroad operations.

“The stipend is still available for [managers] who operate trains on the weekends or holiday,” the email said.

In practice, those scheduled managers usually get the extra shifts — and pay – because of a shortage of qualified engineers, Louis said. The union believes the managers get $500 per shift, but SEPTA did not confirm that. The transit agency said using managers is a last resort.

The union believes that SEPTA has lost at least 35 engineers out of 213 in the past several years. SEPTA says 27 engineers from a roster of 205 left between January 2020 and March of this year.

A number of managers are licensed engineers who moved up the ranks. Language in the contract and a decision from a federally appointed arbitration panel in 1997 allow the authority to assign qualified nonunion employees to run trains when no union engineers are available.

“It’s basically a second job for these people,” said Louis.

Ridership on Regional Rail is at 56% of pre-COVID levels, according to SEPTA’s figures for the first three months of the year. It’s also running 60 to 65% of the service it offered in 2019 before the pandemic, with lower levels at nights and on weekends.

A union leader argued during the public-comment part of the March SEPTA board meeting that the problem is that train service is far less frequent than it was before the pandemic.

“We’ve got trouble on the railroad,” said Roger Eldridge, legislative representative for the union local. “The reason is clear. SEPTA has still not returned to pre-COVID service levels. SEPTA offers inconvenient night and weekend commuter service. The commuter service is littered with gaps.”