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More states take up two-person crew legislation

Image courtesy of Unsplash/Gautam Krishnan

Add Ohio and Washington state to the list of states where leaders are debating whether to require freight railroads to have at least two crew members per train.

Ohio and Washington state legislators have introduced bills this spring mandating a minimum crew size for freight trains. The Ohio legislature is considering a bill that would require at least two crew members aboard a freight train. That bill, H.B. 107, was introduced on March 7.

But Washington state’s bill takes the debate one step further by also defining how many crew members should be operating a train that’s carrying crude oil. Crude-by-rail activity has increased in the state because efforts to build pipelines from Canada’s crude-producing regions to export facilities are facing challenges.

The Washington state Senate is considering a bill that would establish the minimum number of rail crew workers needed to operate a freight or passenger train. Two crew members would be required to operate a freight and passenger train.

But if that train is carrying crude oil, at least three crew members must be on the train, with one crew member at the rear of the train while the others monitor the rolling equipment. If that train has 50 or more carloads of hazardous materials, there must be no less than four crew members aboard the train. In that situation, two of the four crew members would be monitoring the train’s rear.

The bill uses federal definitions to define a train carrying hazardous materials. If a train has 20 or more carloads of class 2 flammable gases and class 3 flammable liquids, or if a train has one or more carloads of class 1 explosive materials such as nuclear fuel or nuclear waste, then the train would need to comply with Washington state’s proposed crew size mandate.  

“The increasing transportation of hazardous and volatile materials on the railroads operating within our state, as well as significantly longer trains operating over the unique and widely varying geographical terrain existing in our state coupled with decreasing train crew size, creates a significant localized safety hazard to the public and the environment,” the bill states.

The bill, H.B. 1841, passed the House chamber by 72-24 on March 13.

Ohio and Washington state legislators have introduced these bills amid ongoing debate over how many crew members should be operating a freight train, particularly as trains get longer and community concerns grow over the shipment of hazardous goods such as crude oil via rail and the potential dangers to communities that the railroads run through or near. Proponents and labor unions generally say having at least two crew members reinforces rail safety measures. But detractors contend that lowering operating costs will encourage the railroads to pursue technologies that enhance safety. They also say crew size should be an issue better hashed out between the unions and the railroads during collective bargaining talks.

These two state bills follow other recent state and federal actions seeking to establish a minimum crew size on freight trains. In March the governor of Colorado signed into law a bill requiring freight trains operating under common carrier agreements to have at least two crew members, while U.S. Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) introduced legislation in Congress (H.R. 1748) in March, which also requires at least two crew members operating a freight train.

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.