Watch Now

States seek to overturn federal directive on freight train crew size

Image: Flickr/Bill Meier (Image taken in Eola Illinois)

The states of Illinois, Nevada and Washington are among the latest states that have decided to fight a federal order that prevents states from passing laws that would require freight trains to have a train crew size of at least two individuals.

Nevada has filed a petition with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit asking the court to review a May action by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) that prevents states from passing laws mandating train crew size. 

The FRA had said in May that it was no longer seeking a proposed rulemaking requiring freight trains to have more than one crew member under certain conditions. The agency said its decision to withdraw the proposed rulemaking on train crew sizes also preempts the state laws that mandate otherwise. 

That in turn prompted Nevada, which passed a law earlier this year on train crew size, to ask the court’s help in reviewing the FRA’s actions.

“Nevada is aggrieved by the provisions…because they infringe, without lawful authority, upon Nevada’s sovereign interest in enforcing its own health and safety statute on the subject of train crew staffing,” Nevada’s Attorney General Aaron Ford said in a July 29 petition. Defendants listed in the petition were the U.S. Department of Transportation and the FRA. 

Ford continued, “Additionally, the decision to preempt state and local laws was arbitrary and capricious and without an evidentiary basis. Accordingly, Nevada requests that the Court set aside the FRA’s decision.”

In addition to Nevada’s petition, the California Public Utilities Commission filed a similar request (also with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit) on July 25, while Washington state Attorney General Robert W. Ferguson filed his state’s petition on July 29.

While these state petitions are pending before federal court, Illinois last week passed a state law requiring train crews to have at least two members on board.

On August 9 Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker (D) signed Senate Bill 24, which requires freight trains to have at least two crew members while in Illinois. The requirement is effective on January 1, 2020. Illinois follows other states that have passed similar legislation in recent months, including Colorado and Nevada.

Union members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen “worked so hard to lobby for passage of this much needed safety legislation,” said the group’s president, Dennis R. Pierce. “Legislation such as this proves that American citizens and their elected leaders have a great deal of concern regarding the safety of railroads that travel through our country. They understand the need to have adequately staffed trains in order to maintain the highest levels of safety.”

Whether the new law has traction is unclear because of the FRA’s declaration in May regarding train crew size.

But the Illinois bill states that its mandate “shall remain in effect until a federal law or rule encompassing the subject matter has been adopted.”

The SMART Union – Transportation Division (SMART-TD) is taking legal action against the FRA’s withdrawal of its proposed rulemaking. Leaders of the union also said it will seek to work with the states’ attorneys general and lobby Congress for a federal rule on train crew size.

“There is going to be a big push coming,” said  SMART-TD president John Previsich at the union’s regional meeting on July 3. The union is also petitioning the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, according to court filings.

The FRA declined to comment because of pending litigation. 

Meanwhile, the Association of American Railroads (AAR), which has said that train crew size is an issue that should be negotiated between the railroads and the unions, reiterated its support of the May decision by the FRA to withdraw the proposed rulemaking on train crew size.

“After a lengthy and thorough process of evidence collection and analysis, a public comment period and a public hearing, the FRA concluded that a federal crew size regulation was unnecessary and inappropriate because there is no data suggesting two-person crews are safer than one,” AAR said. 

AAR continued, “The federal rail safety regulator made clear that its decision was intended to preempt any state legislative action on the matter, consistent with federal law and the national transportation policy of a uniform federal system of rail safety regulation.”

Train crew sizes and longer trains

The debate over train crew size continues amid concerns by the union and some politicians that the safety concerns that could come from longer trains warrant crew sizes of at least two people. A Senate bill was introduced earlier this summer addressing train crew size, while the Illinois legislation cites longer trains for the bill’s rationale. 

The transportation of hazardous and volatile materials on trains, “coupled with substantially longer trains, creates significant health, safety and security concerns for local communities,” the bill said. “Adequate railroad operating personnel are critical to ensuring railroad operational safety and security and in supporting first responder activities in the event of a hazardous material incident, grade crossing incident or mechanical failure.”

The unions also cited longer trains as an argument for two-person train crews.

“At a time when freight trains are increasingly longer and carrying the most hazardous of chemicals through our communities, common sense tells us that response time to critical incidents involving trains is surely enhanced when a safe and adequate train crew size of at least two individuals are deployed, which is already the industry norm today and should be well into the future,” said Bob Guy, SMART TD legislative director for Illinois. 

While train crew size has been the focus of the debate on the merits of the new Illinois law, the law also addresses rail crossings. The law details penalties for blocking a highway-grade rail crossing for longer than 10 minutes under certain timeframes and locations, and it prohibits a train from blocking emergency responders at rail crossings if the train crew is aware that the train is blocking the crossing.


  1. Phillip

    You have all got this wrong when it come to 2 man crew verses one man
    crew when all you do is worry about losing jobs. Its common sense
    thousands of railroad workers will lose their jobs if all the railroads
    are allowed to go to 1 man crews. That’s an issue you need to take up
    with TRUMP! He claims he is creating jobs then let him do something
    about people keeping the ones they have!
    This is about safety. This is about saving lives. Not just crew lives
    but the American people as well. CSX preaches safety every single day.
    Its in their rule books and in their advertising. Its 24 hour a day
    safety…safety….safety. Well let them put their money where their
    mouths are. Pay for safety. Keep 2 men in the cab.
    The public has no idea what we deal with. Tell your neighbors about how
    many cars we hit and people are killed every year when they are hit by
    trains. Explain to them how the engineer is in the cab calling the
    dispatcher and getting 911 called. He is taking care of anything that
    may be wrong with the locomotive. He stays with the train. Tell them
    how the conductor gets down and rushes to the vehicle to see if he can
    possibly save a life. Maybe a baby is in the car and needs to be helped
    or maybe the parents can be removed and need CPR. Maybe he can comfort
    someone who is dying or in shock or screaming because they are severely
    injured . Tell them about how we hit live stock and large deer. Tell
    them how people love to put junk on the tracks. Shopping carts,
    bicycles, steel barrows, wheelchairs and even abandoned cars. Tell them
    about how many trees we hit a year and do extensive damage to the
    locomotive. The engineer stays with the locomotives and assess the
    damage and does what is necessary to radio dispatchers for help while
    the conductors gets down and removes debris and check the rest of the
    train for any damage or signs of derailment. Tell them about the
    territory that is in the middle of TIM BUCK TWO! The places where no
    one can get to you fast unless you have a helicopter. How will they go bathroom now without two people to keep the train going down the tracks unless they have to stop not blocking crossings or take lunch. Tell them how radios don’t always work in remote locations. Telemetry drops out and communication is lost. How many times does a conductor have to go back
    and trouble shoot another unit after alarms are going off. The engineer
    keeps the train rolling the best he can while the conductor checks the
    computers and checks to see if it is loading. Tell them about the blind
    curves that only one crew member can see around when your approaching
    public crossings or trees that block signals so that only one crew
    member can see them until you get the train right on top of them. Tell
    them about wash outs from floods, and heat warped rail and fog so thick
    you cant see a foot in front of you. SO WHAT IF YOU GOT PTC!! PTC does
    not tell you if a car in stopped on the tracks or a tree is across it
    or a person is walking in the tracks or there is 5 inches of water over
    the rail! Tell them how crew members have been attacked and some have
    even been killed by gang thugs and trespassers. A single man has no
    chance in hell in these situations. It is better to have someone else
    with you to keep watch when working in bad areas and ghetto rail yards.
    The list goes on and on. Tell them how the company took away the right
    of the crew members to take a power nap. One crew member is supposed to
    call stopped every 15 minutes while they are waiting on line of road. As
    long as someone is awake and doing this and paying attention there is no
    reason on god green earth while a tired crew member cant take a 20
    minute power nap. Tell them how crews are run into the ground and some
    are called out every 10 hours around the clock. They work all hours of
    the day and night and most have no weekends off. The company wont even
    let them have a power nap. What is going to happen when there is only 1
    man on the train by himself and he is just plain worn out or is sick and
    afraid to take a day off because of the companies new attendance policy
    which is just absolutely insane. People come to work sick all the time.
    Vomiting, diarrhea, fevers and the flu doesn’t stop them because they
    are in fear of losing their jobs. How is a sick man who is all by
    himself going to be able to make a full run safely and without risking
    his life or the publics when he doesn’t have his other crew member to
    help keep him alert. The engineer has many roles and duties as well as
    the conductor. There are times when something happens that it is a must
    for an engineer to be on board and ready to take instructions while the
    conductor handles the rest of the responsibilities. There are so many
    things that go into railroading and running trains that the public
    doesn’t know a thing about.
    has ever been brought forward in the history of the railroad industry.
    And for what? To save a damn dollar. To line someone’s pockets. To make
    someone rich. Who care who gets killed. Who care about the destruction
    to family lives. I don’t know about you but I sure the hell do and so
    should every person in America!

    1. Mickey

      Fools. The world is full of fools that think they know better & the upper echelon of the rail industry is chock full of mindless people that have no experience working the ground. The pencil and paper pushers of the rail industry, especially that of the legal department, do not understand the coordination, the ongoing decision making, the harmony & balance that transpires between a conductor & his engineer. Regrettably it use to be a 3 man crew with the addition of a brakeman but that slot was cut off and we were reduced to a crew of 2 in order for the corporation to increase their profit. How can one make the claim that one set of eyes could possibly be as effective as two pair of eyes? How would you feel if you’re in the military out on patrol and nobody has your 6? These people making the decisions for the crews never spent one day on a train and cannot comprehend the tasks, the skills, to safely and effectively run a train. They’re just looking at a number without consideration of safety. The railroads supposedly live, breathe, & sleep safety. Every moment you are on the job you are constantly immersed in safety & I have no problem with following the rules that regulate my employment. It is obvious that the railroad as well as these misinformed states are asleep at the wheel. The railroad is looking out for one thing only and that is it’s bottom line. They have no concern for your well-being as I can personally attest to such treatment. Take into consideration one other factor that a single man crew benefits them. If there’s a death involving the operator of the locomotive, then the legal department has to deal with only one death case which means settling only 1 claim. Of course that is if they and their claim agents don’t attribute some type of negligence toward the engineer and drag the deceased engineer’s family through the filth & lies. Lie to the kids, lie to the wives. These are the individuals looking out for your best interest, for your “absolute” safety? Are they? If they are so adamant in their conviction then I would like to see each individual do what they express is a safe practice. They need to get their big boy pants & boots on and work the switch industries, work the yards, replace a hose between the 65th and 66th car that is practically impossible to walk back to unless you hold onto every car along the way, to work in the sweltering heat, to work in the freezing cold…they literally have no idea of the multitude of scenarios that are present each and every day. There’s no reasoning with fools because they don’t perceive any of their views as faulty. Safety no longer tops the list of the rail industry or the debate of reducing the crew would be a mute and pointless topic.

  2. Phillip

    1. Protect the TWO MAN CREW BILL (HR 1748 Safe Freight Act) It’s about public safety and jobs.
    2. Go to
    Click on the Red button support two person crews on the right side of division home page.
    2. Enter contact info ( this is needed to direct the email to your member of congress.
    3. Click Send. The pre-drafted my essage will be sent directly to your member of congress.
    4. This effects railroad retirement, retired railroaders, current railroaders there’s even a spot for the general public to make there voice be heard. Please take action there is 175,000 conductors and 59,000 engineers that need this support not to mention public safety at risk.
    5. safety of the crews and the public must come first!

  3. John Lite

    These states are sending a message that they are NOT INTERESTED IN THEIR LABOR FORCE, NOR SAFETY, NOR EVEN ITS REVENUE INCOME STREAM. Every dollars generated by wages is spent 4 (FOUR) times before it leaves the state. So if a worker clearing $50,000 a year, is actually generating $200,000 worth of economic activity and taxable revenue for the state. Accordingly, the states are “shooting themselves in their own foot”

    1. Mkmccauley

      Your wrong!!! As a 41 plus year railroad veteran, the Public is at risk due to Trumps appointment to the FRA. He appointed a former railroad ex to the Head of rail in the U S. All about corporate profit.!!

      safety out the window. Wake up.. the nation’s rail safety Depends on the Employees who work the trains that travel thru the United States.

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.