When a freight train travels across the country, two people are in the cab of the locomotive working to keep the train, its often hazardous and flammable contents, and the communities they are passing through, all safe.
Now the railroads are saying that, given today’s modern technology, just one person is enough.
The Federal Railroad Administration, the government regulator overseeing the industry, and the rail unions don’t see it that way. The FRA held a hearing Wednesday on a proposed rule that would mandate a two-person minimum staffing each train.
Right now, union contracts, and not any kind of federal regulation, require two-person crews. The two unions representing those crew members have so far refused to agree to the change, at least on the major long-distance railroads, citing safety grounds.
With long-distance freight trains now stretching for miles, hazardous and flammable freight can be found on just about every train.
The railroads would prefer only an engineer – and no conductor – in each locomotive. They claim there is no evidence that two-person crews are safer, and insist that a second crew member is unnecessary because of modern safety equipment that’s designed to stop trains automatically if there is a problem in the locomotive.
“There is ample data to demonstrate safe single person operations in the US and abroad, and there is no evidence that two-person crews are safer than one-person crews,” said a statement from the Association of American Railroads, the industry’s main lobbying and trade group.
But the unions say single-person crews pose a tremendous safety risk, not just to the engineer working alone in the cab for hours on end, but to all the communities the trains pass through.
“It terrifies me being a fifth generation railroader,” said Greg Hynes, legislative director of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail Transportation union [SMART-TD], the nation’s largest rail union representing about 28,000 conductors at the major railroads.
“When you think of a two person crew, you have a conductor and an engineer, [and] they have separate responsibilities,” he said. “There’s a check and balance very much like what takes place in the cockpit of an airliner with a pilot and a co-pilot. I would not feel safe flying in a commercial airline with one pilot. I would not feel safe with a three-mile long freight train carrying the most dangerous hazardous material on the planet through my community with only one set of eyes.”
The engineer is the one who actually drives the train, with the conductor climbing off and onto the locomotive to couple and uncouple train cars and checking for any problems.
The railroads say it would be more efficient to have the conductors moving from point to point in trucks, and meeting the trains at designated stops or when problems do occur, rather than riding on them. And they claim that will provide a better work/life balance for the conductors, allowing most to be at home every night.
“If agreed to at the bargaining table, moving conductors to a ground-based position – where they perform the majority of their work – could lead to dramatic improvements in this area,” said AAR. “Ground-based conductors would have set shifts and return home every night, just as most other rail employees outside the locomotive cab do.”
SMART-TD is adamantly opposed to this proposal, as is the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, the second largest rail union which represents 24,000 engineers.
Some single person crews currently work on “short line” freight railroads, but the all long-distance trains run by the nation’s major freight carriers have both an engineer and a conductor. Management failed in its attempt to get that changed in the recent round of labor talks.
If approved, the federal rule would still allow single person crews where they are now in use, but prohibit them on the long-distance trains, and it would remove the issue from future negotiations. That would be a big win for the unions, which would no longer need to concede on other key bargaining issues to maintain the two-person crews in future negotiations.
The unions say the conductors do far more than just ride along waiting to couple or uncouple cars; they provide a second set of eyes in the locomotive, and are a sounding board for the engineer.
“You need two people to bounce ideas off of when you’re in the 11th hour of a shift and suddenly you think of something and you’re like, ‘oh, I could do this,’ ” said Nick Wurst, a conductor for CSX since 2019. “You want to have someone there that you can double check with (to) make sure you’re not making some kind of dumb shortcut.”
Wurst said the trains carry all types of hazardous materials, including ethanol, chlorine, oil and petroleum products and even radioactive waste. While it is safer moving that material by rail than by truck, it is still dangerous if there is a derailment, because “it’s essentially 70 loaded bombs,” he said.
The railroads argued at Wednesday’s hearings that if they can’t improve efficiency by having one-person crews, they’ll lose business to trucks, which they say will put more hazardous materials on highways and pose much greater safety risks to surrounding communities.
Beyond the risk of a derailment, there is also the danger posed to the public at railroad crossings.
“It’s also just [that] two pairs of eyes are better than one when it’s the middle of the night [when] you’re going over crossings,” said Wurst. “You want people on either side of the engine.”
The unions also argue if there is an accident at a crossing, the conductor can exit the locomotive and check if someone needs assistance, or clear a crossing for emergency personnel. In rural areas, a derailment could involve miles of detour if the first responders have to get around the train, and an engineer working solo can’t leave the locomotive unattended, noted SMART-TD’s Hynes.
But at Wednesday’s hearing the railroads argued that current safety equipment, known as a positive train control, provides the check and balance on the engineer that the conductor offers.
“Technology has supplanted the conductor’s traditional safety role,” said Tom Schnautz, vice president of Advanced Train Control for Norfolk Southern, at Wednesday’s the hearing. “There is not a single task that cannot be safely addressed by a ground-based conductor or technology. ”
Beyond any safety issues, removing conductors from the locomotives would hurt rail service, some experts say. Rail customers are already complaining about poor rail service, with delays well past the promised arrival time.
Problems with rail service, which carries about 30% of the nation’s freight, is cited as a major issue affecting the nation’s supply chain, causing shortages and driving up the cost of goods. Even the railroads acknowledge that service improvements are needed.
And some of those who think it would be safe to run with single-person crews say the hit to service is reason enough to require two-person crews.
“I really am not going to be bothered by that [safety risk]. There’s evidence it’s not unsafe,” said Pete Swan, professor of logistics and operations management at Penn State Harrisburg. “However the railroads have shown that cutting cost is more important than customer service, so what I fear is service will suffer further… How much extra time does it take to have a conductor in a pickup get to a train when problems occur?”
The railroads argued Wednesday that using ground-based conductors will improve service by attracting and retaining staff.