Debate renews on train crews

Source: Washington State Department of Transportation/Flickr

The debate over how many crew members should operate a freight train is back in the spotlight again as federal and state officials push to mandate crew size for the freight railroads.

Last week, Colorado governor Jared Polis, a Democrat, signed a bill into law requiring freight trains operating under a common carrier obligation to have at least two crew members aboard the train, or else face misdemeanor fines. The law takes effect on July 1. Meanwhile, on March 14, U.S. Representative Don Young (R-Alaska) reintroduced legislation also requiring freight trains to have two or more crew members.

The debate isn’t new. During the Obama administration the Federal Railroad Administration issued a notice of proposed rulemaking in 2016 to develop requirements for what the minimum number of train crew staff should be, based on the operation. That proposed rulemaking has since stalled. Former North Dakota U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp also introduced legislation last year requiring trains with at least two crew members.

One of the key issues in the crew size debate is how much the railroads should rely on technology such as positive train control, which monitors the distances between trains, to also ensure safety.

“Automation of cars, buses, aircraft and trucks are being addressed by legislation and regulation by the federal government and many states. It’s time the federal government provided some oversight on railroads,” said John Risch, a legislative director for SMART, which stands for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers union. SMART is calling for at least one certified conductor and one certified locomotive engineer to be on board an operating freight train.

Proponents say having a minimum of two crew members provides additional safety support, especially in case technology or a piece of equipment appears to fail because of a hiccup in the system. Those in favor of having a crew of two or more members point to accidents such as the July 2013 accident in Lac-Mégantic in Quebec, Canada, in which a one-person crew was overseeing a freight train that derailed because of a faulty braking system, killing 47 people.

“Alaska is one of the only states with rail structure shared by both passenger and rail services. Because of this, freight rail safety directly impacts passenger rail safety,” said Young’s spokesman Zack Brown.

The Safe Freight Act has “the intent of reducing instances of train engineers and conductors being stretched too thin with operational duties. Requiring a second crew member aboard a train to help share the operational workload is a commonsense step to strengthen public safety,” Brown said.

But those opposing a crew size mandate say a one-person crew provides an opportunity for the railroads to reduce operational costs, which in turn would incentivize them to develop automation technologies that would improve productivity while also enabling one-person crew operations.

“We do not support the mandates being explored at both the federal and state levels on the issue of crew size. The rail industry has a strong safety record, and there simply isn’t a safety justification around the proposed legislation,” said Kristin Smith, senior vice president of communications for the Association of American Railroads. “Policymakers should not interfere with rail staffing and should instead allow this discussion to occur through collective bargaining.”

Young’s bill has been referred to the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee’s Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials. To date, the bill has 14 co-sponsors (13 Democrats and one Republican).e

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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. Her transportation background extends to writing about automotive fuels and additives for Hart Energy Publishing and producing summaries on advanced transportation research for a federal government agency. In her spare time, she likes writing travel articles, taking photographs, and singing and dancing. She has a bachelor's degree in music and political science from Barnard College, a master's in journalism from Boston University, and a master's in musical theater from Boston Conservatory.

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