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Railroad executives want to eliminate conductors — and exhausted rail workers are terrified

‘It’s not just about saving my partner,’ said one conductor. ‘It’s about saving my community’

Railroads have shed much of their crews in the past few decades. Conductors could be next. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

It was 11 p.m. on Jan. 3, 2022, when rail conductor Brian Raleigh got the call from Norfolk Southern that he would need to come into work. 

Raleigh, who joined Norfolk Southern in 2004, drove to the railyard in Decatur, Illinois. He started setting up rail cars hauling soybeans, corn, chemicals and other commodities from the rural town. But he didn’t feel so good — just a cold, he figured. 

Raleigh told the engineer for his train, Travis Pierce, he was feeling off. “No big deal,” Pierce thought at the time. “Hell, us as rail workers, we never feel good.”

The conductor took his temperature; it hit 99.9 degrees. Once the train started moving, Pierce remembered Raleigh was “sweating bullets,” and he regularly stepped outside the train in the 20-something-degree weather to cool off. 

Raleigh decided to tell his dispatcher that “for everybody’s safety” he’d like to get off the train. They would find a new conductor to fill in for him in Harristown, about 10 miles from where they started.

Then Raleigh fell down. He tried to sit on a chair but passed out — hitting his head on the window. He vomited shortly after.

Pierce, the engineer, moved the train to the side at a nearby crossing. A dispatcher connected them to an ambulance, which showed up 15 or 20 minutes later, Pierce said.

“I never did ask him how long I was passed out,” Raleigh reflected months later. “I just remember him yelling at me, ‘Brian, Brian’ until I came to.”

LEFT: Norfolk Southern engineer Travis Pierce with his wife, who he credits with raising their three children as his life as a railroader kept him away from home. “To be honest without her, I couldn’t do it,” he said. “She’s my rock.” RIGHT: Norfolk Southern conductor Brian Raleigh said he spends about 96 hours away from home each week. And when he is home, he’s often too tired to spend time with his wife and their two children.

Raleigh, it turned out, would be OK — he was sick with the coronavirus and experienced a fever spike. But the experience shook him, and Pierce.

That’s because Norfolk Southern, like most Class I railroads in the U.S., is looking to whittle down crews to one person. Most freight trains in the U.S. currently have a conductor and engineer on board. The conductor typically monitors and stages freight cars, while the engineer monitors the speed and condition of the engines pulling those cars.

If the railroads get their way, freight trains may run with just engineers on board. And that terrifies workers like Pierce, who became a railroader in 1999, shortly after graduating high school and marrying the woman he had dated since age 15.

“If it would have been just him on there, who knows how long it would have been until they [the ambulances] got there?” Pierce said. “If it was just me, what would have happened? Would I have died? There’s no way to get an ambulance or medical services if we can’t call them.”

Norfolk Southern declined to comment on the incident.

Additional automation on these trains has made conductors unnecessary, said an Association of American Railroads spokesperson in an emailed statement. AAR pointed to short-line rail and passenger trains that operate with just one in-cab employee. 

Executives, including ones from Union Pacific and Norfolk Southern, don’t want to get rid of conductors. Instead, they want to make the job ground-based, meaning conductors are responsible for offloading and staging multiple trains in a given location, rather than riding with the train from station to station. This would also allow for more rest time at home, rather than at hotels, and presumably make recruiting easier.

But the majority of rail workers don’t seem to agree. As freight trains get longer — and, thanks to low crew counts and increased efficiency, schedules get more exhausting — federal regulators and experts aren’t certain that the conductor gig can be done away with for reasons that align with both safety and efficiency. 

In July, the Federal Railroad Administration proposed a rule requiring two crew members in trains, except for “low risk operations.” The proposed rule has attracted more than 10,000 comments from the public, most of which appear on first blush to be rail workers in support of keeping on two-person crews.

Rail unions and companies have been at odds since January 2020 over a new contract. Negotiations have finally produced a tentative agreement, which was reached in the early hours of Sept. 15 with help from the Biden administration. Still, not all rank-and-file union members haven’t approved the tentative agreement. If they do not approve, that could lead to the first major rail strike since 1992 — which could potentially devastate supply chains. 

The current tentative agreement still allows for two-person crews. But a new portion of the tentative agreement is worrying some workers: the potential to have self-sustaining pools for conductors. This could convert all conductors from scheduled work times to potentially getting called in to work at any time. One conductor, who asked that he and his employer not be identified, said, “It appears they are trying to make the job so miserable and unlivable that we agree to being ground-based.”

One-person crews follow the trend of slashing headcounts to boost productivity

When David Schanoes became a rail worker some 35 years ago, up to five people ran a single train: an engineer, conductor, head brakeman, second brakeman and sometimes an engineer trainee.

Those roles have been steadily picked off as trains become more and more automated — just like all other forms of transportation. 

This increased automation has allowed railroads to employ fewer and fewer people, in part as a way to recoup investments in that technology, said Schanoes, who retired from railroading in 2008 as the deputy chief of operations at New York’s Metro-North Railroad and is now a consultant.

Rail employment fell from around 530,000 to around 190,000 in the three decades between 1979 and 2009, a decrease of about 64%. However, productivity increased by 430%, according to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study. Throughout the mid-20th century, rail lost much of its market share to long-haul trucking. 

But the past decade has seen rail manage to become more profitable than ever. It came at a cost, though: Workers complained of more punishing schedules and customers accused rail of slashing service. Most glaringly, these decreased headcounts rendered rail companies short-staffed following the summer of 2020 — and rail workers told FreightWaves this made their quality of life worse than ever.

Rail employment steeply declined during the beginning of 2020. Even as rail volumes recovered, employers have been unable to recoup crews. (FreightWaves SONAR)

Eliminating conductors would be the latest step in this trend toward reduced rail labor, said Allan Rutter, who was the administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration from 2001 to 2004.

“It is part of a long-term trend of increased productivity on the freight railroads and the reduction of overall railroad staff,” Rutter, now a researcher at Texas A&M Transportation Institute, told FreightWaves. “There’s been a long-standing trend of gaining or seeking more out of the existing numbers of railroad employees. So, it’s not surprising that a conversation about how many people are in the cab would take place.”

The industry association that represents major railroads points to technological advances to bolster its argument against the need for in-cab conductors. Positive train control, which refers to the systems that prevent train collisions, derailments and other accidents, has been the most crucial in reducing a conductor’s duties. An AAR spokesperson wrote, “any in-cab duty responsibilities for a conductor have become redundant, bolstering the case that they can be moved to ground-based service without compromising safety.”

The FRA has vacillated on this issue. Today, under the pro-labor Biden administration, the federal regulator said a two-person crew is necessary to safely operate a train, unless a rail operator can prove with data that a single-person crew is as safe. In recent years, including 2009 and 2016, the FRA has said there’s no conclusive data to suggest one-person crews were more or less safe than larger-crew operations.

An FRA spokesperson declined to comment for this article. 

Schanoes doesn’t believe a one-person crew is necessarily unsafe, given the lack of conclusive data from the FRA, but he said a ground-based conductor crew would likely drag on service levels and efficiency.

Even if the job of conductor on the train is largely automated, conductors are still responsible for arranging the freight cars themselves. A ground-based conductor would then be responsible for breaking off cars and adding new ones onto trains where they may be unfamiliar with what type of freight is in a given train. They may also be unfamiliar with what kind of terrain the train will be traveling on.

Meanwhile, it’s important for engineers to understand how their train was put together in order to safely drive it, Rutter said. 

“That’s really a complicated process and one of the reasons why engineers and conductors are so carefully trained on the territories they operate in,” Rutter said. “Every one of those rail lines is different depending on the grades, the mix of the traffic they have on it, and the kinds of challenges that are posed by that. I think train makeup — how those trains are made up in the yard — is a complicated thing for each individual train crew to get their head around and understand when they get up in that cab and understand what’s behind that locomotives.”

That work has only become more challenging as trains get longer and longer — sometimes more than 100 cars. However, Rutter added that he’s not aware of any research at this point that argues a two-person crew is a safer option for driving a train. 

Rail workers don’t believe one-person crews are safe, but data from Europe shows a possible solution

Freight trains across Europe, as well as some U.S. passenger trains and short-line trains, operate safely with one-person crews. A recent study commissioned by the AAR explored these cases to show that one-person crews can be safe.

Looking at collisions, derailments, and other employee injuries or fatalities, the study concluded that “major European operators using single-person crews appeared to be as safe as Class I multiple- person crew operations.”

However, there are key differences between those trains and Class I freight trains that make the latter potentially more challenging to operate with just one worker. Those trains are rarely as long as the ever-expanding Class 1 freight trains. And those trains tend to be far lighter, too — with the average European train around a sixth of the typical weight of a U.S. train. 

That European freight trains are safer than American ones, even when operated by just one individual, is not shocking to Schanoes. He said rail crew hours have decreased 22% over the past eight years, but accidents have declined by just 7%.

“I think the key is scheduling,” Schanoes said. “We’re talking about the alertness of crews. Our safety improvements generally have flattened out and we haven’t made the increase and improvements in safety performance that we’ve come to expect over the past 40 years. I think that we’ve reached that point where we really have to approach crew scheduling and what we’re doing to our human factor in these train operations.” 

Raleigh, the Norfolk Southern conductor who fainted at work, said exhaustion is already slamming his co-workers. Removing conductors from the cab of a train and leaving engineers on their own could further undercut safety. 

“These engineers are so worn out, they’re going to fall asleep at the wheel if they’re all by themselves,” Raleigh said. 

“Engineers are going to die,” one anonymous conductor told FreightWaves. “And they’re going to be dead for hours before anyone ever notices.”

The 2013 Lac-Mégantic rail disaster killed 47 people. A one-person crew was operating the 73-car freight train, which was hauling crude oil. (Ryan Remiorz/AP Photo)

The stakes of such derailments and accidents are frightening — and not just for the people who work on trains. In 2013, a one-person-crew train hauling crude oil shot down a hill and derailed in the downtown of Lac-Mégantic, a small town in Quebec, Canada. It destroyed the downtown and killed 47 people.

“When you have a railroad crash, it’s a huge thing,” Rutter said. “[It] can cause serious consequences, both for railroad employees and for communities in which those trains move, particularly if you’re talking about hazardous materials.”

That’s what scares Raleigh the most about the idea that just one person could operate a train that hauls chemicals, coal and other hazardous materials through towns each day.

“It’s not just about saving my partner,” Raleigh said. “It’s about saving my community.”

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Rachel Premack

Rachel Premack is the editorial director at FreightWaves. She writes the newsletter MODES. Her reporting on the logistics industry has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Vox, and additional digital and print media. She's also spoken about her work on PBS Newshour, ABC News, NBC News, NPR, and other major outlets. If you’d like to get in touch with Rachel, please email her at [email protected] or [email protected].