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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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  1. Tierney Gallegos

    Imagine your loved one is going on a road trip. The trip might last 6 hours, 12 hours or they might even be stuck somewhere for 18+ hours. While they are on the move they do not have cell service, they can’t listen to music, and you aren’t 100% sure exactly where they are to track their progress. They only have 2 hours to pack and be ready to go, and they don’t know where they are going until they get their call. The call can come at 11PM, 3AM or 5PM and anytime in between, with no rhyme or reason. Your loved one may have to walk outside in the elements to inspect their train, or to tie/untie brakes when they leave or get to their train. The train could be in the middle of nowhere, where animals lurk, or it could be in an area of downtown that is unsafe; and because of THIS rule your loved one could be ALONE. They may slip climbing on a train car to release a brake, they could trip over weeds, or rocks near the tracks, and there is no one to check on them, or to help them; to simply reach out on the radio to confirm their safety. So, let’s say they make it to their train safely and they begin their journey. They are tasked with safely running an entire train, which in some cases may exceed 10,000ft, over 2 miles long, over diverse terrain, and weather conditions. Your loved one is required to know how to handle the train. They need to know the speed limit on the track they are traversing, the grade of the track, crossings coming up, changes in speed limits early enough to be able to effectively control the train as well as any special circumstances which may arise. There may be animals crossing the tracks at any time, deer, cows, and even loose dogs. There may be people walking near or on the track, maybe even a drunk driver parked on the tracks, sometimes as unfortunate as it is to state, there may be someone attempting suicide by train, or in such a state of mind that they don’t realize they are on active train tracks. Your loved one cannot be distracted for even a blink of an eye; because the community’s safety, their safety, and their job is at risk at every moment of their journey. When they miraculously make it to the other end of the road, they stay in a hotel; once again for 12 hours or 18hrs or sometimes they are stuck on the other end of the road for days, only to take another train back to their home terminal and go through this exhausting, stressful, and intense trip all over again, just to get home to you and your family. Wouldn’t you want your loved one to have someone, anyone with them? To talk to them while on the move, to stay awake, to be diligent, and to keep the focus in the cab when it matters most.
    I am a class one railroad employee. My boyfriend works for the railroad and my brother does as well. I cannot imagine them or myself performing these tasks alone, nor would I want to. The very thought that railroads are pushing for one man crews is outrageous. It is unsafe, and impractical. Incidents are bound to happen; however with a single man crew I have no doubt that those incident rates will go up, and our co-workers, communities, and overall rail safety will suffer and we will all pay the price in the long run if one man crews are allowed.

  2. G

    Some jobs in some areas such as Pusher jobs have a 1 man crew. However, I know for a fact that one man crews are not the safest course of action. Not long ago, an engineer died on a train while the train was in motion over the road in an area between Kansas City and Ft. Madison. If it wasn’t for the Conductor taking action who knows what else could have taken place to risk public safety. There are other cases that are similar to this where the Engineer either had a heart attack or stroke while on duty and the conductor had to take action. There’s no publicized data on incidents prevented because of two alert people on a train doing their job, but there’s publicized data for incidents that have taken place. If you’re willing to bet your life and the life’s of others on the hopes that the technology these trains use is more than a tool than you’re sadly mistaken. Of course the technology helps, but it is still only a tool. This Technology is not a replacement for the on the spot decision making needed in stressful moments. Many scenarios exist, but you’ll have to live this lifestyle to truly understand.

  3. Robert willett

    Yes you should have a two man crew on the train at all times hire me as a contractor I would love to work for CSX . Thank you

Comments are closed.

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.