The IBEW has joined a coalition of labor unions to sign an agreement to build and run what is billed as the first truly high-speed passenger rail line in the U.S.
The Brightline West project aims to connect the Los Angeles area’s Metrolink system with the Las Vegas Strip via high-speed rail. The agreement between the coalition and the company commits Brightline to employing union members on every aspect of work to build, operate and maintain the line as a condition of securing a $3 billion grant from money made available by the trillion-dollar 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
“Thanks in part to the men and women who work in our Railroad and Construction branches, millions of people who drive between Los Angeles and Las Vegas could soon be making that same trip on a comfortable train in half the time,” said International President Kenneth W. Cooper. “Brightline knows that they can count on the members of our union coalition to get the job done safely and efficiently.”
The High-Speed Rail Labor Coalition unions represents more than 160,000 highly skilled freight, regional, commuter and passenger railroad workers in the U.S.
“The coalition met with Brightline several times and gave them a few of our concepts of how high-speed rail should be done,” said Railroad Department Director Al Russo. Had the company tried to do the project without using organized labor, he said, it would have set a dangerous precedent for some of its planned projects in other parts of the U.S.
High-speed rail is generally considered to include trains that travel at least 155 miles per hour on tracks that have been built specifically to handle such speeds. Brightline West is planned to operate on new tracks along a 218-mile route that mostly uses the median strip of the Interstate 15 right of way via trains capable of achieving speeds up to 200 miles per hour.
The $10 billion investment promises to have far-reaching economic benefits, including the creation of thousands of jobs during construction — about 1,100 of which would be under the HRLSC’s jurisdiction. The system is expected to generate hundreds of permanent union jobs, including IBEW work, once the line is operational.
“That’s crucial, because our members understand that keeping the work is just as important as getting the work,” said Construction and Maintenance Department Director Matt Paules. “This type of infrastructure investment will employ thousands of our members. This is only the beginning for high-speed rail in the U.S., and the IBEW intends to be part of the construction, operation and maintenance of these rail systems of the future.”
In February, the coalition wrote Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in support of Brightline’s application for an IIJA grant from his department. Once funding is secured and construction is underway, Brightline estimates that the line could be ready for full revenue service as early as 2027.
Brightline also estimates that the fully electric and emission-free system will take 3 million cars off the road each year, preventing the generation of about 400,000 tons of carbon dioxide. Brightline West promises a journey time of just over two hours from a planned Metrolink light rail station to the Strip, operating at a top speed near 180 mph. Drivers on I-15 along the same route have speed limits that top out at 70 mph.
The memorandum of understanding sets Brightline West as an official rail carrier as defined by the Railway Labor Act, and it specifically spells out the rights of workers on all aspects of the project to be represented by a labor union.
“The IBEW was the last to sign the MOU,” Russo noted. “President Cooper wanted to make sure that the project labor agreements fully protect workers.”
Having RLA jurisdiction also helps ensure that Brightline will remain neutral during any organizing campaigns during the project, Russo said.
Joining the IBEW on the High-Speed Rail Labor Coalition are the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division; the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen; the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers’ Transportation Department and Mechanical and Engineering Department; the National Conference of Firemen and Oilers, represented by Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ; the Transportation Communications Union; the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers; the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen; the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers; the Transport Workers Union of America; the American Train Dispatchers Association; and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.
Meanwhile, Russo, Paules and their staff members continue to work alongside their counterparts in the coalition to work out the necessary agreements among the various locals and trades organizations in Nevada and California.
“Once America sees this, governors will flock to see about implementation in their states,” Russo said.
Paules concluded: “When that happens, our reputation for success on this rail line will go a long way toward securing future projects on similar new construction all over the country.”