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FRA proposes minimum 2-member crew size for most trains

Trade group, union coalition offer conflicting responses to Federal Railroad Administration proposal

Union Pacific trains line up in a rail yard. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

A train crew would typically have to include at least two people under a rule proposed by the Federal Railroad Administration.

The proposal — which drew conflicting responses from the Association of American Railroads and the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO — comes as labor unions and the railroads are at loggerheads over a labor contract, while questions about technology’s role in freight rail operations loom large. The requirement would reverse a May 2019 decision that a rule governing train crew size wasn’t warranted.

The rule calls for a minimum of two main crew members for over-the-road railroad operations. Certain low-risk operations and circumstances may be exempt.

FRA says the proposed rule would enhance safety nationwide by replacing the patchwork of state laws on minimum train crew sizes, preventing railroads from being subject to disparate requirements.

The rule also would establish where crew members should be located on a moving train and prohibit the operation of some trains with a one-person crew if the trains are transporting large amounts of certain hazardous materials. 

There also would be risk assessment and annual oversight requirements to ensure that the railroads are considering all safety factors when deploying a one-person crew.  

“We are committed to data-driven decision making,” said FRA Administrator Amit Bose in a news release. “In cases where railroads wish to operate with fewer than two crewmembers, we are proposing that they perform a rigorous, thorough, and transparent risk assessment and hazard analysis, and FRA will provide an opportunity for public comment on these submissions.”

FRA’s notice of proposed rulemaking, which will be published Thursday in the Federal Register, says that railroads could petition the agency to continue legacy operations with one-person train crews. FRA can also approve the initiation of a new train operation with fewer than two crew members.

FRA says the rule complements other regulations that the agency is developing or has recently issued, such as safety risk reduction programs and fatigue risk management programs, and that the rule is consistent with the safety analysis required by other FRA regulations, such as positive train control (PTC). The agency noted that technological breakthroughs led to gradual reductions in train crew sizes, from about five in the 1960s to two by the late 1990s.

Comments on the proposed rule must be received by Sept. 26 and can be submitted to the docket FRA-2021-0032 via

The train crew size debate 

Wednesday’s proposed regulation departs from actions under former FRA Administrator Ron Batory, who was appointed by former President and Republican Donald Trump and who withdrew FRA’s consideration of a train crew size rule over three years ago. In explaining in May 2019 why FRA withdrew its proposed rulemaking, the agency said then that the railroads have maintained a strong safety record in the absence of regulation and that regulating train crew staffing was not necessary or appropriate for rail operations to be conducted safely.

The agency also said a crew staffing rule would have posed an unnecessary obstacle to innovation in the rail industry, whose crew staffing matters have been well served by the Railway Labor Act since 1926.

Since that withdrawal, legislators in states such as New York, Michigan and Washington have either introduced or passed bills requiring a train crew size of at least two people for freight rail operations.

The wider debate about train crew size is related to technology’s role in railroad operations. The rail industry has also been exploring the viability of autonomous trains and the technologies that could be developed using PTC as a springboard. PTC, a technology that the federal government required the railroads to deploy, aims to keep track of the distances between trains as a way to prevent collisions and other accidents.

The debate over train crew size is also related to changing workplace dynamics in the freight rail industry, including the question of whether an engineer and a conductor are both needed on a train or if one of those roles could transition to be on the ground so that the one not on a train could work a more traditional schedule.

Rule gets mixed reception

In response to FRA’s announcement, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) argued that FRA made the decision without a safety justification for reconsidering the issue. AAR also said the agency’s action reverses prior assessment of previous studies and ignores real-world applications here and abroad. 

While FRA says the proposed rule offers a path toward single-person operations, the rule gives FRA the “unfettered discretion” to disapprove such requests, which in turn creates regulatory uncertainty and “may make it nearly impossible for carriers to move beyond the current staffing paradigm.”

“Today’s proposal prioritizes politics over sound, data-driven safety policy,” said AAR President and CEO Ian Jefferies in a news release. “In 2019, the FRA thoroughly reconsidered a rule that was very similar to the one being put forth today and retracted it after finding a complete absence of a safety justification for that rule. We knew then, and we especially know now with the full deployment of Positive Train Control technology, that there is no plausible safety justification for regulating the number of individuals physically located inside the cab of a locomotive.”

AAR also contends that the proposed rule goes against actions within other Department of Transportation modal agencies that are working to support greater automation.

“As has always been the case, railroad staffing and duty assignment decisions belong at the bargaining table,” Jeffries said. “In fact, this issue is being negotiated right now across the industry in the current round of collective bargaining, and that process should be allowed to conclude without attempted interference in an area never before regulated.”

In contrast, the Transportation Trades Department (TTD) of the AFL-CIO said the rule would promote safe and effective teamwork.

“This proposed rule acknowledges that crew size is fundamentally a safety issue at its core. By creating a federal standard across the industry, the FRA can address the significant safety concerns presented by railroads operating with single person crews,” said TTD President Greg Regan in a statement.

“We will be further evaluating the proposed rule and submitting our formal opinion before the close of the comment period on Sept. 26, 2022, to ensure the FRA establishes the strongest safety protections possible for workers and the public,” Regan said.

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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.