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FRA hears clashing views from railroads, unions on train crew size

Proposal on train crew size reflects larger issue of technology’s role in rail operations

A Union Pacific train. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Railroads and unions gave conflicting views during a hearing by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) on a proposed rulemaking that would require freight trains generally to have at least two crew members in the locomotive cab. The agency is gathering public testimony through next week.

Here are some key issues that the railroads and unions addressed at the Wednesday hearing:

Mandating set crew size blocks innovative work configurations, say railroads

The railroads and the unions just ended a multiyear bargaining round for a new labor agreement, and one of the issues raised was the need to address work-life balance

Some of the Class I railroads are experimenting with moving the role of the train conductor from the locomotive cab to the ground. The rail industry says this could give conductors’ work schedules more regularity, as well as make the role more appealing for job candidates.

“Conductors’ jobs are hard. The work is unscheduled, and it takes our employees away from their homes and family. … It creates a barrier to us recruiting and retaining our people. It is no secret that our recent workforce challenges have degraded the quality of our service, not only at NS, but throughout most of the industry,” said Tom Schautz, vice president of advanced train control for Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC). 

“By shifting the ground-based conductors, we can address these challenges, with conductors reporting to set locations on scheduled shifts, performing their duties within a reasonable distance of their reporting locations and going home to their families at the end.” 


However, requiring train crews of at least two people in the locomotive cab would jeopardize those experiments, the railroads told FRA.

“The problem is the proposal — well intended though it may be —  creates a practically instrumental regulatory barrier to implementing a ground-based conductor strategy,” Schautz said. “It will force us to operate with locomotive-based conductors unless we can obtain permission from the FRA using an unrealistic special approval process.”

Schautz also argued that the implementation of positive train control (PTC) in the locomotive cab enables the railroads to place conductors on the ground.

PTC is a safety technology that stops a train from moving if a potential collision is detected. By congressional mandate, the Class I railroads spent millions of dollars to implement the technology on the U.S. network.

Conductors traditionally served as lookouts and advisers to train engineers, copying and acquiring directions from the dispatcher and communicating with the roadway worker in charge before entering a worksite, according to Schautz. But in a territory where PTC has been implemented, it is no longer necessary for the conductor to do these duties while inside the cab. That’s because the PTC system communicates this information directly to the engineer, he said.

Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP) is seeking to implement a similar model. The railroad consulted with labor during collective bargaining negotiations about putting the train conductor in a truck, where the conductor is dispatched from a central location within the network to respond to planned or unplanned events, according to Rod Doerr, vice president of crew management for UP.

“Shifting the traditional conductor role to a ground-based expediter will not only be safer and more efficient, but will also add a better quality of life for a large portion of our operating craft employees. This is a cause that labor has been championing for years. The expediter role is the foundation for true scheduled work in this industry,” Doerr said.

One benefit of this arrangement is that the conductor no longer has to walk the train length to get to an issue. The expediter, or truck-based conductor, drives to where there is a problem on the train, and then the conductor can give an affirmative to the train engineer once the problem has been resolved, according to Doerr. Another benefit is that the conductor may be able to bring tools that would not otherwise be available under existing arrangements, he said.

UP wants to establish a pilot program in which the railroad tests this arrangement. During the pilot, a conductor will remain on the train and continue to perform their current role documenting dates, times and duration of service activities, Doerr said. If the pilot goes well, UP would implement it in controlled phases of increasing complexity across the railroad’s PTC-equipped network.

“To be clear, we will leave the conductor aboard the train and add the expediter so that we can compare and contrast operations based on those modes of operating. … The pilot will provide a controlled, safe, appropriately staffed learning environment [where UP can see challenges] as they come up to see if the program works as we envision,” Doerr said. 

By requiring a set train crew size, the railroads will inevitably have a harder time competing with trucks, especially since the trucking industry is seeking to eventually deploy fleets of autonomous trucks, according to the witnesses from NS and UP.

“Our industry is fast approaching a technological crossroads. With FRA’s proposed two-person crew mandate, the agency is threatening to take us down the path of obsolescence,” Doerr said. “Robots run factory floors, self-driving cars [are] already on our roads and highways. Amazon is planning autonomous aerial drone deliveries, self-steering cargo ships have crossed our oceans [and] commercial trucking companies, with the apparent support of the U.S. Department of Transportation, look to eliminate their current single-person driver operations.”

Rule would be cost-prohibitive for most short-line railroads, says trade group

Requiring short-line railroads to comply with the rule could also force them to cease or significantly change operations because of the costs involved, according to Chuck Baker, president of the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA).

That’s because many of the short-line railroads run like mom-and-pop businesses that have limited ability to take on additional costs, like hiring more employees to comply with the rule, Baker said.

“Each customer and each carload is significant for short lines. It is literally no exaggeration to say that the loss of one single customer can send a short line into a vicious tailspin, resulting in bankruptcy of the short line,” Baker said.

Baker also said FRA grossly miscalculated the number of short-line railroads that could be impacted by the rulemaking. While the notice of proposed rulemaking says that only seven short-line railroads would be affected by the rule, ASLRRA calculated that approximately 420 short lines operate at least some of their movements using only one person in the locomotive cab. 

Nearly 200 of those railroads would not qualify for an exception to the rule, nor would they be eligible for applying to legacy operations exemptions, he said.

“If the government’s estimate of the number of entities affected by a rule is off by literally more than an order of magnitude … that to us requires a rethink of the basic structure and applicability of the role to the segment of the industry,” Baker said.

2-person crews enable safer operations, unions argue

Unions representing rail workers say the train conductor inside the cab serves a complementary function by doing duties that the engineer cannot perform.

“The locomotive engineer and conductor function as a joint cognitive system, meaning that conductors and locomotive engineers jointly contribute to the set of cognitive activities required to operate the train safely and efficiently,” said Jeremy Ferguson, president of the transportation division for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers (SMART-TD). 

The problem with having a ground-based conductor is that it’s uncertain how large that conductor’s territory could be. If the region is too wide, it could be hours before a ground-based conductor could receive the communication, let alone travel to the problematic train, according to Ferguson. 

“What if the train’s location is inaccessible for whatever reason and the wandering conductor can’t gain access? Does the FRA really want to explain to a mayor or county council … [why] an area was blocked for hours because of the train, [resulting] in major damage or loss of life because the conductor assigned to the territory was stopped in traffic?” Ferguson said.

Vince Verna, vice president and national legislative president for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), said the railroads should not treat PTC as performing the job of another crew member because “it simply has not been required, designed or implemented to do so.”

“PTC was designed to comply with the PTC regulation to prevent train overspeed, prevent trains from colliding with other trains and to prevent incursions into work zones. These are important safeguards and train crews want them,” Verna said. 

While PTC’s purpose is to make trains safer, the technology’s implementation into the cab “has introduced new complexities” because the engineer must juggle between finding directives on the screen given by the dispatcher, handling the fuel saver program, and looking out the front window, Verna said.

Most of the technology is aftermarket, which means it is “bolted on,” rather than integrated into the locomotive, he continued. This makes the locomotive cab very crowded with technology and screens.

“When [the railroads] think of railroad technology, they’re not thinking of cutting edge,” Verna said. The railroads are thinking “of cutting crew size and cutting corners to do it.” 

PTC also has limited functionality because it doesn’t work at speeds below 20 mph, nor does it look out for obstructions or washouts, Ferguson said. 

The unions also questioned whether autonomous trucks would be a viable threat in the near term.

The railroads “claim they need to retain the ability to move to one-person crews because they’re facing a near-term existential threat from automated trucking. This claim is nonsense,” said Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department. “First, there are no automated trucks on the market today. You could not purchase one no matter how much money you have. And secondly, most experts in automated driving technology say that it will take decades for the technology to be viable.”

Trains need at least two people in the locomotive cab because there are many unplanned situations in which a conductor can respond to an incident in a way that an engineer cannot. These situations include crossing gate failures or locomotive failures that may require switching locomotives within a locomotive consist, Verna said. 

Ferguson recalled a time when he was the engineer on a train and ahead of him was a young girl standing on the tracks. Ferguson tried to tell the girl to move but she just waved at him. At the last second, his train conductor was able to shoo the girl away after Ferguson’s pleas to her to get off the tracks went unheeded.

“This story boils down to the basic fact that conductors are observing track conditions, while engineers are obligated to split their attention between monitoring and controls in the track,” Ferguson said. “Having conductors on trains saves lives and prevents disasters in ways technology cannot. Artificial intelligence absolutely has a role to play, but it cannot replace authentic human intelligence.”

Ultimately, the railroads are trying to use technology to cut costs, not to make train operations safer for crew members, union representatives said. 

“Downsizing train crews, while upsizing the length of trains, is simply another distasteful feature of precision scheduled railroading,” Verna said, referring to the tool that the Class I railroads deployed in recent years to streamline operations and cut costs.

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Joanna Marsh

Joanna is a Washington, DC-based writer covering the freight railroad industry. She has worked for Argus Media as a contributing reporter for Argus Rail Business and as a market reporter for Argus Coal Daily.