- Federal regulators are proposing a two-person train crew minimum, a victory for workers that railroads warn could exacerbate labor problems that have contributed to declining service and worsening congestion.
- With limited exceptions for low-risk operations, the Federal Railroad Administration will require all railroads to staff trains with a locomotive engineer and an additional crew member. The rule is set to be formally published in the Federal Register Thursday and is subject to a 60-day comment period.
- Labor unions representing railroad workers have argued a second crew member is necessary to help the conductor spot potential dangers and respond in cases of emergency. Railroads claim there are no proven safety benefits to two-person crews and that the advancement of automated track technology can eliminate the need for additional labor while making operations safer.
Hiring and retention challenges have stymied a recovery in rail service for months, pushing carriers in some cases to limit the amount of traffic in their networks. Railroads argue that minimum crew size rules could create a new barrier to restoring service while offering limited safety benefits.
“There is no other reason why the company is not performing other than we do not have conductors on the trains,” CSX CEO James Foote said in a testy exchange with the Surface Transportation Board during an April hearing. “You want an answer [to congestion]? Let us run the trains with one employee and the issue is solved.”
Under the proposal, railroads that already operate one person crews will be able to continue doing so until the FRA can review the safety of the operation. The FRA is also making exceptions for certain small railroad operations in addition to certain unit freight train loading and unloading operations.
Carriers that operate locomotives remotely will also have a path to petition the FRA to run with less than two-person crews, though with certain limitations — for example, a train with a remote controlled locomotive would not be allowed to carry more than 20 multilevel cars at a time. Railroads would be prevented from replacing one of the two crew members with an on-the-ground worker assisting train movements, with the FRA stipulating in its proposal that both crew members should generally remain on the train.
Most carriers already operate with two person crews, and union stakeholders have said that the push to remove crew members from the train is a bid to pad railroads’ bottom lines. Total accidents during the first four months of 2022 increased 10.1% from the previous year, with fatalities rising 27.2%, according to FRA data.
“I am not sounding the alarm here. I am screaming into the bullhorn for help,” Jeremy Ferguson, president of the Transportation division within the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers (SMART), testified during a June House committee hearing on rail safety. “Left unchecked my members will wind up maimed or killed, and it is America whose supply chain will end up collapsing.”
Railroads, meanwhile, say the proposal would inject regulatory uncertainty into the industry and disincentivize carriers from investing in safety technology that could make operations safer and more efficient.
“Today’s proposal prioritizes politics over sound, data-driven safety policy,” said Ian Jefferies, president and CEO of the American Association of Railroads, in a statement Wednesday. “We knew then, and we especially know now with the full deployment of Positive Train Control technology, that there is no plausible safety justification for regulating the number of individuals physically located inside the cab of a locomotive.”
Two-person crews has been a divisive proposal in the industry for years. The FRA proposed mandating two-person operations in 2016 before retracting the idea three years later, saying there was no conclusive evidence to suggest “whether there is a safety benefit or detriment from crew redundancy.” President Joe Biden revived the issue as a candidate in 2020, making two person crews a part of his campaign.
“I’m going to keep fighting for those crews, requiring two person crews on freight trains ... making sure that everyone has what they need to safely do their jobs,” Biden said in a message to SMART members in June 2020.
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