Lawmakers are mounting an effort requiring freight trains to be operated by more than one person, even though railroads have historically bucked past efforts to mandate crew size.
Although most freight trains are operated by two people, one-person crews are not prohibited.
Late last month, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., introduced legislation called the Safe Freight Act, which requires that at least two people are at the controls for freight trains. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, also introduced the Safe Freight Act to the House in 2017.
Railroads have maintained that regulations on crew size should be “a collective bargaining issue” and that railroads may want to use one-person crews once new technology is implemented. Rail labor organizations such as the Transportation Division for the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union have backed the legislation and have said it is solid public policy to enhance rail safety.
“You need two people on a train, and I was a railroad engineer for 30 years, because you have to constantly interact with each other to make sure our complex rules and procedures are followed,” said John Risch, national legislative director of the SMART Transportation Division.
“You have to have somebody double-checking one another to make sure things are done right,” he added.
For Heitkamp, the issue hits close to home. In 2013, a train carrying crude oil near Casselton derailed. Heitkamp revealed that having two crew members aboard the train prevented more damage from occurring. She said that in that accident, one of the crew members pulled remaining oil cars away from an existing fire to prevent the flames from spreading.
“When a disaster like the Casselton derailment sends shockwaves through our communities, we must do everything we can to prevent accidents and improve our ability to respond in the future,” Heitkamp said in a statement last month after introducing the legislation to the Senate. “After the Casselton derailment, it was clear that having two crewmembers on board the train made all the difference to prevent the fire from escalating and threatening those living nearby.”
Cosponsor Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., said the measure makes sense.
“It is common sense that railroads must have adequate personnel in place to protect communities along rail lines,” Baldwin said in a statement this month.
Heitkamp has supported two-person crews in the past and testified in 2016 in favor of a proposal put forth by the Federal Railroad Administration in 2014 that would also require two-person crews.
But the Association of American Railroads opposes efforts to mandate crew sizes, and the group urged the FRA to withdraw the proposal in 2016.
"There is no greater priority for the freight rail industry than safety, but this proposed rule offers no safety benefit to railroads, their employees, or the public," Edward Hamberger, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, said in 2016 in reference to the FRA proposal. "There is absolutely no data to support the view that a second crewmember enhances safety. This regulation is trying to solve a problem that does not exist."
The Association of American Railroads pointed out that the FRA admitted that there is no data to support the idea that two-person crews are safer. “It is possible that one-person crews have contributed to the improving safety record” of the rail industry, FRA said.
Additionally, a review of the FRA train accident database showed that there isn’t evidence to suggest one-person crews are involved in more accidents than those of two-person crews.
Furthermore, the Association of American Railroads also asserts that multiple-person crews may not be necessary with certain technology including positive train control, technology that automatically reduces speeds of trains that are over the speed limit.
Railroads are facing a deadline to implement positive train control by the end of 2018, with the possibility of an extension to Dec. 31, 2020, if the railroad meets certain requirements.
The FRA’s proposal has not been withdrawn, but has been put on the backburner as it is awaiting review from the next FRA administrator, who has not been approved by the Senate yet.
The Association of American Railroads did not provide a comment to the Washington Examiner on the Safe Freight Act and pointed to its comments on the FRA proposal.
While Risch from SMART Union acknowledged that positive train control is beneficial, it doesn’t provide the same kind of support another human could, such as separating road crossings, or interacting with emergency responders during a derailment while the engineer stays aboard the train.
“Positive train control is a very good thing, and it is a safety overlap, but positive train control doesn’t do a host of other things,” he said.
Additionally, Risch said it doesn’t solve one of the largest issues in the industry.
“Here is probably one of the most overriding reasons why we have to have two crew members: the issue of fatigue,” Risch said.
He said freight crews are “on call” for their entire career. Crew members may be called in to complete a lengthy shift during the evening and early morning hours, even after working a previous shift during the day, he said.
Because of the demanding schedule, it’s helpful to have two people on the crew to help keep each other alert, Risch said.
Although Risch doesn’t think there is an appetite in Congress to impose more regulations now, he said SMART Transportation Division will keep up the fight.
“We’ll continue to promote this idea and encourage Congress to act in the best interest of the American people and safety,” Risch said. “Safety not just for railroad workers, but safety for the communities we go through.”