The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has stopped the rulemaking process to create a mandate for two-person freight train crews.
The FRA said on May 23 that it was withdrawing its notice of proposed rulemaking for train crew staffing. The agency said that the railroads have maintained a strong safety record in the absence of regulation and that regulating train crew staffing is not necessary or appropriate for rail operations to be conducted safely at this time.
The agency also said a crew staffing rule would have posed an unnecessary obstacle to future innovation in the rail industry, whose crew staffing matters have been well-served by the Railway Labor Act since 1926.
Withdrawing this proposed rulemaking preempts all state laws attempting to regulate train crew staffing in any manner, the agency said.
The FRA issued its proposed rulemaking on March 15, 2016 under the administration of former President Barack Obama, but it has been sitting in the queue since then.
The International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, or SMART, which advocated for the establishment of minimum train crew size, was disappointed in the FRA’s announcement.
“The action today flies in the face of so-called conservative values and states’ rights. The federal government is refusing to protect the public and at the same time is prohibiting states from doing so by posting this federal notice,” said SMART Transportation national legislative director John Risch.
The union will consider legal action, and it asked its members to lobby Congress to pass a law requiring a federally certified engineer and conductor on board a freight train, Risch said.
Meanwhile, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) praised the announcement, saying that the ruling will encourage railroad companies to develop technologies.
“AAR and its member railroads are gratified that the FRA rescinded this unjustified proposal and confirmed what it acknowledged from the start: there is no evidence to justify regulating minimum train crew size as a matter of safety,” said AAR president Ian Jefferies.
Both U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and FRA Administrator Ron Batory “have made clear that safety is of paramount concern, new technologies can be powerful tools for achieving safety and overly prescriptive regulations can chill innovation,” he said.
Any decisions over train crew size should be made between the railroads and the unions during labor bargaining, Jefferies also said.
The issue of train crew size has come to the forefront as the Class I railroads seek to implement precision scheduled railroading, an operational model that attempts to cut costs – including employee headcount – and maximize assets.
The rail industry has also been exploring the viability of autonomous trains and the technologies that could be developed using positive train control as a springboard. Positive train control, a technology that the federal government mandated the railroads to deploy, aims to keep track of the distances between trains as a way to prevent accidents and collisions.