How many people does it take to safely operate a freight train?
Two, say railroad labor unions, the Federal Railroad Administration and some members of Congress, arguing that having just one person in the cab of a locomotive was unsafe. They cite a series of deadly accidents involving trains with a solo engineer, including last year’s disaster in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, where 47 people were killed after an oil train jumped the tracks.
One, argues the railroad industry, which counters that there’s no data to prove multiple-person crews are safer.
For now, chalk up a win for organized labor, which beat back a proposal this month by one of the nation’s largest railroads to eliminate on-board conductors from most trains. But that’s not likely to be the last word in the debate.
Railroads are spending billions of dollars to install a new collision-avoidance system, which they say makes the conductor’s job obsolete. Technology and automation have resulted in the elimination of many railroad jobs over the years. It’s possible that the on-board conductor could go the way of the caboose.
“Labor unions never stop new technology,” said Frank Wilner, an author and columnist on rail issues who’s worked for the industry’s chief advocacy group, one of its major labor unions and one of its key federal regulators.
Still, on Sept. 10, members of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers union – known as SMART – rejected a tentative pact with BNSF Railway that would have cleared the way for engineer-only operation of trains. It would not have applied to trains carrying large volumes of hazardous materials, including crude oil and ethanol.
The agreement failed by roughly 2-to-1, according to union members.
“The conductor is essential for safety and movement of the train,” said Mike Elliott, a spokesman for the Washington State Legislative Board of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, which supported efforts to defeat the BNSF crew proposal.
The conductor is in charge of the train. He or she maintains paperwork on the train’s cargo and ensures that it reaches its destination safely. The conductor is the troubleshooter when something goes wrong with the train and performs visual inspections of other passing trains for defects.
The unions have a sympathetic ear in the Federal Railroad Administration. The agency plans to propose a rule requiring two-person operation of most trains. Administrator Joseph Szabo, a former union officer, has said that having two people on a train enhances safety.
One-person train operation is common on railroads overseas and in U.S. passenger and commuter rail operations. The freight rail industry’s leading Washington advocacy group say there’s little reason why trains can’t operate safely with only an engineer.
In April, Ed Hamberger, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, said the Federal Railroad Administration had “never shared an iota of data that shows or proves two-person crews are safer.”
Supporters of one-person train operation note a 2005 wreck in Graniteville, S.C., involving two freight trains. A three-person crew on one freight train forgot to realign a track switch, sending a second train plowing into the first. Nine people – an engineer and eight nearby residents – died of chlorine gas inhalation after a tank car punctured.
Supporters of two-person crews note that some of the deadliest rail accidents in recent years have involved a solo operator. Those include last year’s derailment of a Metro-North commuter train north of New York City, which left four dead and 63 injured. They also point to a Southern California collision in 2008 where a Metrolink commuter train hit a freight train head-on, killing 25 people, including the commuter train’s engineer.
“The anecdotal stories cut both ways,” Wilner said.
The rail industry is counting on Positive Train Control to prevent such accidents. The $10 billion system would automatically stop or slow a train to avoid a collision or excessive speed.
The National Transportation Safety Board has long recommended that the industry adopt a collision-avoidance system and doesn’t take a position on train crew size as long as the collision system is in place.
Positive Train Control was required by Congress following the 2008 Metrolink crash, with the support of railroad labor. While the industry has grumbled about the cost of installing the system, it would realize big savings if conductors could be eliminated on most trains.
But the system might not have prevented any of the major derailments of trains carrying large volumes of flammable liquids since 2006, including last year’s disaster in Quebec.
According to a report released last month by Canadian investigators, the train’s engineer failed to apply a sufficient number of handbrakes to hold the train at the top of a steep incline. A few hours later, the train rolled away and derailed at more than 60 mph in the center of Lac-Megantic.
The Transportation Safety Board of Canada stopped short of concluding that the absence of a conductor contributed to the accident. But it noted that the experienced engineer had worked a full day and had to apply the handbrakes on his own late at night, a responsibility usually assigned to a conductor. The engineer only applied seven, when he should have applied between 17 and 26, the report concluded.
“The disaster in Quebec might have been prevented if two crew members had been in control,” said Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, who introduced a bill in Congress last year to require a two-person-minimum train crew.
Supporters of two-person crews say that freight trains are longer, heavier and more complex to operate than passenger trains, especially in mountainous territory.
In the public comment section for proposed U.S. Department of Transportation rules aimed at improving the safety of crude oil trains, Aaron Javorsky, who identified himself as a 20-year BNSF engineer, said the absence of a conductor would increase his workload.
“I’ve already got to read paperwork, talk on the radio, control the train, comply with signals, and whistle crossings at the same time,” Javorsky wrote. “Getting rid of a conductor will dump his duties on top of the many that I already perform, while removing a valuable level of safety.”
Railroad workers say that the conductor performs a role that no technology can replace. In a 2012 cognitive task analysis, the Federal Railroad Administration identified “dealing with exceptional situations” among the conductor’s key responsibilities.
A lot of things can go wrong: A train could strike a car or a person. The train could become uncoupled. A defective or overheated wheel or axle 100 cars behind the locomotives might require a car to be detached from the train.
Conductors are responsible for fixing such problems, work that requires them to dismount. Engineers can’t leave the locomotive unattended.
“Who’s going to go back to see what’s going on?” asked Herb Krohn, Washington state legislative director for the SMART union’s transportation division.