Reflective vests: not a target for terrorists; good for safety

In late May, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on an ongoing dispute between SEPTA and the BLET, the union representing SEPTA’s railroad engineers. As reported by the Inquirer, this dispute (which is itself part of broader contract negotiations) centers on the requirement that engineers wear reflective vests on the job, not just while on or about the track, as is already required, but at all times.

SEPTA’s request doesn’t seem unreasonable, but the union’s not having any of it. Their first argument is that the vests are unfashionable; one engineer claims that “[w]e look like the Fruit of the Loom lemon in those things”. But they don’t stop there; the union also claims that engineers should not have to wear reflective vests because “[t]hey have identified for any potential terrorist who the locomotive engineer is”. The idea that a terrorist would single out an individual in a reflective vest sounds like what Bruce Schneier would call a movie-plot threat. Bluntly, it’s just not a credible argument against the vests—and neither is complaining about them being unfashionable.

I understand that SEPTA and its locomotive engineers have long had a difficult relationship—such as in 1981, when SEPTA took over service from Conrail on a portion of the Fox Chase/Newtown line, truncating the Conrail-operated commuter rail line, and then immediately reopening the remainder as a ‘rapid transit’ line. SEPTA’s actions towards its unionized employees over the years may have been inflamatory, but that does not change the fact that SEPTA’s move to mandate reflective vests, from a safety and customer service perspective, is entirely reasonable. Unfortunately, it seems that for the locomotive engineers, ‘customer service’ has become a dirty word:

“SEPTA, in its desire to have us in uniforms and perform customer service work, is trying to get us into uniforms, and the vests are the first step,” said Dixon, general chairman of the local Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. “They just want to ram us into this and not negotiate it.”

Here, the BLET’s real argument starts to show through—for them, it’s not just about the vest. It doesn’t matter what color it is, or when they have to wear it or if it attracts terrorists; for them, wearing a uniform or a reflective vest is the first step on a slippery slope towards having to “perform customer service work”. But what does that really mean? Do SEPTA’s locomotive engineers really want the right to tell a passenger that customer service isn’t in their contract, and that as a result they don’t have to answer questions or help passengers get assistance?

Some rail operations have cut back on train crew sizes—even, in some cases, implementing so-called driver-only operation or one-person train operation—but that’s not what is at issue here. SEPTA hasn’t indicated that they want to eliminate conductors from their trains, or shift additional responsibilities to engineers. Reflective vest or not, engineers will continue operating trains, and conductors will continue to collect fares and provide on-board customer service. But when an emergency occurs, passengers, emergency workers, and even other SEPTA employees should be able to find key individuals, including train crew members, quickly and easily. Wearing a recognizable uniform—including a reflective vest—goes a long way towards achieving that goal. I would not be concerned if the union were to present legitimate concerns over the design of the uniform and its’ overall comfort and wearability (considering that some vests are quite unpleasant or even dangerous to wear), but fabricating concerns with little grounding—’vests attract terrorists’—is in poor form. Moreover, the union’s stance ignores the fact that all employees of a transit agency are part of its public face, whether they acknowledge themselves as being part of the ‘customer service’ staff or not.