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Rail union members vote down BNSF proposal to cut train crew size

BNSF crude oil trains meet at Galesburg, Ill., on Aug. 31, 2014. BNSF and other railroads have struggled to keep up with freight shipments, including record grain volumes and a growing amount of crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken region. Federal regulators and lawmakers are monitoring the railroads' performance, while the industry is buying new locomotives, laying new track and hiring new employees to meet the increased demand. (Curtis Tate/McClatchy)
BNSF crude oil trains meet at Galesburg, Ill., on Aug. 31, 2014. BNSF and other railroads have struggled to keep up with freight shipments, including record grain volumes and a growing amount of crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken region. Federal regulators and lawmakers are monitoring the railroads' performance, while the industry is buying new locomotives, laying new track and hiring new employees to meet the increased demand. (Curtis Tate/McClatchy) McClatchy

A tentative agreement to reduce train crew size on one of the nation’s largest rail carriers has failed, according to the labor union whose members voted on it this week.

The pact would have eliminated on-board conductors on 60 percent of BNSF Railway, which spans the western two-thirds of the country.

The vote represents a defeat for the railroad, based in Fort Worth, Texas, and owned by billionaire investor Warren Buffett. BNSF sought union approval to operate most trains with a single engineer on lines protected by Positive Train Control, a collision-avoidance system required by Congress in 2008.

John Fleps, BNSF vice president for labor relations, said in a statement Thursday that it was up to members of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air and Rail Transportation Workers to decide whether to adopt the changes.

“They have decided not to move forward at this time and we respect the process,” Fleps said.

Under the pact, engineers would have received a pay boost, and conductors would have been given the opportunity to become engineers.

Trains carrying hazardous materials, including trains laden with large volumes of crude oil or ethanol, would still have operated with two people on board.

Earlier this year, following a deadly derailment of a crude oil train in Quebec last year that had a sole engineer, the Federal Railroad Administration proposed a rule that would have required two-person crews on most trains.

However, the rail industry argued that there was no data to support the government’s assertion that two-person crews enhanced safety. And the National Transportation Safety Board takes no position on how many people are in the cab of a locomotive, as long as the train is protected by Positive Train Control.

The agreement would have applied to roughly 3,000 BNSF workers across several states.

A message sent to union members late Wednesday by Randall Knutson, general chairperson of SMART’s GO-001 committee, informed them that the proposal had failed, and that more detailed results would be available in coming weeks.

It also said that the committee would remain open to “informal conversation” about the matter with BNSF.

Note: This post has been updated with comment from BNSF.

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