Members and leaders of the SMART Transportation Division as well as the AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department, spelled out why U.S. freight railroads’ obsession with Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) increases the danger to the public and railroad workers alike.
Journalist Aaron Gordon spoke with TD President Jeremy Ferguson and AFL-CIO TTD President Greg Regan about degradation in the safety culture of freight railroads because of PSR in an in-depth article published on March 22. “It’s going to end up like Boeing,” President Ferguson warned.
Gordon’s article touched upon many topics that our members are unfortunately already well aware of, including: the severe reduction of rail employees which has greatly impacted safe operations, the increase of fatigue associated with the same demanding work but with a reduced work force, the practice of railroads to have inspectors spend less time inspecting cars, the deferral of needed maintenance and potential safety issues being glossed over so that dwell time is not increased. It paints a very realistic and clear picture of how the railroads’ operating ratios and profits have been placed well ahead of safety and all in the name of PSR.
But by questing for those increased returns on Wall Street, the lessons learned from past operational mistakes could conceivably end up costing railroads in the long run, subjects interviewed in the article say.
CLEVELAND, Ohio, (May 20) — The U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) Volpe National Transportation Systems Center (Volpe), in partnership with the SMART Transportation Division (SMART-TD) and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), is launching a survey in mid-May to learn more about Information and Communications Technology (ICT), which relates to the technology and tools that railroaders use to share, gather and communicate information. The purpose of the survey is to understand how best to communicate important safety-related information to union members and across the railroad industry.
The ICT survey, approved by both SMART-TD and BLET leadership, is being sent to a randomly selected sample of active train, yard, and engine railroaders. Everyone included in this sample is strongly encouraged to respond.
“We support this effort because we believe it will help us to better serve our members. We are collaborating with the Volpe team to reach our members for this survey. Please make time to complete the ICT questionnaire if you receive it,” SMART-TD President Jeremy R. Ferguson and BLET President Dennis R. Pierce explained.
Participation is voluntary and means only completing the questionnaire, which should take no more than 20 minutes. Unique codes for each questionnaire are assigned randomly to participants to keep responses strictly confidential.
Interested parties can learn more about the ICT Survey by contacting Dr. Heidi Howarth, the Volpe project lead, at email@example.com or 617-494-2522. This project is sponsored by the Office of Research, Development, and Technology of the Federal Railroad Administration.
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The U.S. DOT established Volpe in 1970 to serve as a federal resource positioned to provide world-renowned, multidisciplinary, multimodal transportation expertise on behalf of U.S. DOT’s operating administrations, the Office of the Secretary, and external organizations.
The SMART Transportation Division is comprised of approximately 125,000 active and retired members of the former United Transportation Union, who work in a variety of crafts in the transportation industry.
The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen represents nearly 58,000 professional locomotive engineers and trainmen throughout the United States. The BLET is the founding member of the Rail Conference, International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
SMART Transportation Division President Jeremy R. Ferguson and Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) President Dennis Pierce sought clarification today from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) after the agency granted 60-day emergency waiver requests to railroads on March 25, ostensibly to maintain their operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As you are already aware, SMART Transportation Division, Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, and other rail labor Organizations take strong exception to certain aspects of FRA’s seemingly absolute and unconditional approval of such requests,” the presidents wrote in a letter to Administrator Ron Batory. “We find the sweeping nature of these approvals alarming, especially in view of the fact that the rules waived are written with the safety of our members, and the general public, in mind.
“Notwithstanding the unfounded nature of some of the carriers’ claims in their applications, our immediate concerns are founded in our firm belief that if the carriers understand and apply FRA’s waiver to be carte blanche invitation to ignore rules, it will have a substantial chilling effect on safety.”
The waivers, granted by Batory and signed by Karl Alexy, associate administrator for railroad safety for FRA, were held for a number of days by the agency, which limited the ability of labor organizations to comment and seek a public hearing.
Meanwhile, an emergency order request sought by SMART-TD and the BLET seeking sanitation of areas frequented by frontline rail workers through the course of performing their “essential” duties remains under consideration on the desks of FRA officials.
The waivers grant the Association of American Railroads (AAR), American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA) and American Public Transportation Association (APTA) as well as other railroad entities the ability to temporarily circumvent established federally mandated requirements for:
Operational tests and inspections
Restrictions on utility employees
Locomotive and conductor certifications
The reason cited by carriers in their petition was to cope with potential workforce shortages the railroads may experience during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Petitioners assert that a reduction in availability of employees due to the COVID-19 pandemic will affect railroads’ ability to keep freight trains carrying critical goods and materials necessary for the country’s welfare operating during this emergency, and that compliance with all Federal railroad safety regulations, with the expected workforce shortage, would significantly hinder railroads’ ability to operate,” the FRA said in its response granting the waivers.
But thanks in part to their adoption of Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) practices since 2017, the total employee headcount for Class I freight carriers – including administration/management, maintenance and transportation crew, as reported by the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB), has been axed by roughly 14,000 people in 2019 and by 33,000 since 2000.
STB says that in February 2020 that Class Is had 56,767 transportation crew employees, down from a three-year peak of 68,980 in November 2018.
“There is also a concern that the carriers would use the excuse of a ‘downturn in business’ to artificially create a shortage of manpower to exploit the use of the waivers,” Ferguson and Pierce wrote.
Numbers provided to the union show that approximately 15 percent of T&E personnel are furloughed at the time. SMART-TD leader also have knowledge that carriers recently contacted the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) in anticipation of offering voluntary furloughs to employees during the pandemic, which incidentally would make the employee ineligible for RRB unemployment benefits.
Among the most-dangerous aspects of this set of waivers is carriers being permitted to allow employees who are unqualified in the territory and uncertified to operate trains as long as Positive Train Control (PTC) technology is present and engaged.
The federally mandated deadline for full PTC implementation is Jan. 1, 2021, and full interoperability among railroads has not been achieved, yet these waivers make the assumption that PTC functionality is sufficient to allow for unqualified crew members to operate over America’s railroads.
Shortened time intervals for required locomotive maintenance and inspections
The movement of defective equipment to the “nearest available” repair location
95% operative brakes to be permissible for trains leaving their initial terminal
Trains can travel 1,200 miles without an intermediate Class IA brake inspection
Extended haul trains can travel 2,000 miles without an intermediate Class IA brake test
The four-hour off-air time is extended to 24 hours and 48 hours with FRA permission
Transfer test requirements are relaxed
The ability to combine two operating trains without additional inspections other than a Class III brake test
Relaxation of yard air source testing and calibration requirements and of requirements for single-care air brake tests
Relaxation of required testing and calibration of telemetry equipment
“These regulations were written with the public’s safety in mind,” SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson said. “A number of these waivers are not in the interest of safety and could be creating a recipe for disaster to rail workers and for the public.”
If particular properties do not have a demonstrated reduction of personnel directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, illness or self-quarantine, and these waivers are being employed, members are asked to report it to union leadership immediately.
The incident earlier this month in which a two-person crew helped to save a 5-year-old girl in his state reminded SMART Transportation Division Minnesota State Legislative Director Phillip Qualy of a letter his state’s legislative board submitted in 2018 in response to a federal Department of Transportation request for comment about autonomous rail operations.
Minnesota State Legislative Director Phillip Qualy
After a discussion he said he had last summer with FRA Administrator Ron Batory, Qualy said he had reason to believe that his communication over the safety a two-person freight rail crew provides might have been overlooked by the DOT and Batory and his agency. After all, there were about 1,545 comments in favor of the FRA establishing a two-person crew rule that were outweighed in the agency’s eyes by the 39 comments in favor of the May 2019 withdrawal of the proposed rule.
“This was a good letter that our members should read and be aware of,” Qualy said. “This spells out the essential argument of why having two people on the crew is important.”
In the letter, Qualy reminds Batory that technology does not always reduce the tasks involved in operating a train, citing crew duties such as:
Throwing manual switches and dual control switches, coupling cars, coupling air-hoses, setting hand brakes, pulling pin lifters to switch cars, replacing failed hoses, gaskets, replacing couplers, mechanical and air-brake inspections remain constant work tasks of any operation. Any ATT, PTC, and/or aerial drone cannot do these train tasks.
When ATT and PTC programs fail en route, standing or delayed trains must not be permitted to block public roadways as a practice. The uncoupling of a standing train to open a grade crossing to allow vehicles to pass requires two persons.
After grade crossing collisions with the public, immediate Samaritan response to help the injured is an essential and moral responsibility within the fabric of our society. Two persons on all trains are necessary to assist the public after grade-crossing and other accidents.
“The railroad carriers and their associations claim two persons will not be necessary on trains with ATT and/ or PTC,” Qualy wrote. “These technological control features have nothing to do with the necessary and essential tasks of the train-machine behind or ahead of the locomotives.”
The Feb. 1 incident in East St. Paul, Minn., in which a missing girl was found by a two-person train crew after they alertly stopped and provided aid is a perfect example of why two sets of eyes are needed in the cab.
“Railroad carriers have a moral responsibility to provide for the right of Samaritan response,” Qualy wrote in his letter.
The questions need to be asked. Would the girl have been seen if it were a one-person operation that night? Would the sensors of an autonomous train have detected her, stopped the train and invited her into the cab of the locomotive for warmth and protection and then contacted authorities so she could be reunited with her worried family?
Here’s a little reminder that some on the railroad believe in moral responsibility over innovation.
The efforts of a two-person crew in East St. Paul, Minn., helped to save a wandering five-year-old girl and reunite her with her family.
Near midnight Saturday, Feb. 1, SMART Transportation Division Local 1293 member Jarrod Campbell and BLET member Angela Knutson were operating a Union Pacific train through East St. Paul when they spotted something unusual alongside the tracks.
The shape looked strange to them, so Knutson stopped the train, and Campbell grabbed his lantern and left the cab to investigate.
Walking back, he discovered a five-year-old girl wearing a light jacket. She wasn’t wearing a hat or mittens and her sneakers were filled with snow.
“I introduced myself to her,” Campbell said. “She said that her name was Zoey and that she was cold and wanted her mom.”
The conductor out of the Altoona, Wis., local picked Zoey up and asked her if she would want to come into the locomotive where it was warm so she could meet Angela.
“She gave me a big hug and said thank you,” Campbell said.
Campbell carried Zoey through the snow and they went into the cab. There Campbell and Knutson comforted her by wrapping her in Campbell’s coat, giving her a spare pair of Knutson’s socks, using hand warmers to stave off the early signs of hypothermia and keeping her calm until EMS crews could arrive.
She had been reported missing to police about 45 minutes to a half-hour before the crew found her, Campbell later learned. The temperature was about 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and he said there was still eight to 10 inches of snow on the ground there.
The combined efforts of both crewmembers saved the girl from a possibly life-threatening situation at a time when rail carriers are looking to cut the conductor position from the cab in favor of technologies such as Positive Train Control. The carriers and Federal Railroad Administration argue that no data exists proving that a two-person crew is any safer than a single-person crew.
Zoey’s family would probably differ on that.
“It’s just miraculous that we were able to see her or find her,” Campbell said. “It sure wasn’t Positive Train Control that stopped and saved this girl.”
SMART Transportation Division Alternate Vice President J. Scott Chelette, general chairperson of GO 927, was featured in a television news report about the rail industry’s intention to eliminate the conductor from the cab of freight trains in the wake of Class I freight carriers implementing Positive Train Control (PTC).
Chelette was featured alongside West, Texas, Police Chief Darryl Barton on the report, broadcast Jan. 30 on KWTX-TV in Waco, Texas.
“The industry wants to take it a step further and thinks that because they have Positive Train Control that we don’t need a conductor on the locomotive anymore. That’s not the case,” Chelette said. “It’s just a failsafe. It’s just like your vehicle having an alert system.”
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in a 41-page report released Jan. 13th by its Office of Research, Development and Technology said what railroaders already know.
Researchers at the Volpe Center over a period of years performed cognitive task analyses (CTAs) that examined the mental demands placed on rail workers, including operating personnel, as they engaged with technology and performed their jobs.
SMART Transportation Division President Jeremy R. Ferguson
“Results from the locomotive engineer and conductor CTAs indicate that train crews, a primary example of an elemental team in railroad operations, exhibit characteristics of high performing teams that are found across industries,” the report said. “These include mutual performance monitoring — to catch and correct errors — and active support of each other’s activities.”
“These teamwork activities went beyond the requirements of formal operating rules and were not explicitly covered in training,” the report states.
The Volpe Center has even received accolades from Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao herself, who praised its work at enabling safety and innovation for the nation in regard to transportation and infrastructure during the center’s groundbreaking in Oct. 2019.
“It has worked to reduce rail-grade crossing accidents, improve vehicle safety, and better manage the airspace…. The Volpe Center continues to provide important contributions to our national transportation system. Especially now, when we have entered a historic period of transportation innovation that promises to boost economic growth and improve quality of life. These innovations are occurring in all modes of transportation, including roads, rail, maritime, and aerospace…. All these innovations are exciting, but they can be disruptive. This is where Volpe’s contribution plays an important role. Volpe’s data and analysis provides trustworthy information that helps us distinguish between ‘High’ and ‘Hype’ performance innovations. Volpe’s data helps build confidence among stakeholders, including the public whose acceptance is critical to realizing the potential of ground-breaking innovations.”
So, when a facility respected for its research of transportation issues provides evidence in an FRA report saying that cooperative efforts and communications exhibited by the two operating crew members help keep railroad operations safe beyond the baseline training that every rail worker receives upon hire, it blows a hole in the argument that “rail safety data does not support a train crew staffing rulemaking” from FRA Administrator Ron Batory last May in withdrawing the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on two-person crews.
There’s the old saying that “two heads are better than one.” Railroaders live this life, especially when coping with the unimaginable fatigue being an over-the-road crewmember brings. The ability of two people to work together and their collected experience helps them to react to unexpected and potentially dangerous situations as they happen, preserving the safety of the crew and others while crossing the country.
Earlier research from the Volpe Center released in December 2013 also proves this:
“The locomotive engineer and conductor function as a joint cognitive system, meaning that conductors and locomotive engineers jointly contribute to the set of cognitive activities required to operate the train safely and efficiently.”
“While each crew member has a distinct set of formal responsibilities, in practice they operate as an integrated team, contributing knowledge and backing each other up as necessary.”
“When operating on the mainline conductors not only serve as a ‘second pair of eyes’, alerting the locomotive engineer to upcoming signals and potential hazards (e.g., activity at grade crossings; people working on or around the track), they also contribute knowledge and decision-making judgment.”
“Conductors also serve an important, redundant check and backup role, reminding locomotive engineers of upcoming work zones and speed restrictions.”
“If necessary, they will also handle unanticipated situations and activate the emergency brake, in cases where the locomotive engineer has not responded quickly enough.”
“Conductors have developed a variety of skills and strategies that enable them to handle non-routine situations safely and efficiently.”
It truly is puzzling. Both AAR and Batory’s agency tout safe operations as a primary goal on their websites, and they praise the efforts of railroad workers in keeping operations safe in public testimony. Then they simultaneously argue in court and in state legislatures against keeping those personnel working on America’s railroads because maintaining two on the crew might crack some fragile egg of future technological advancement.
By the way, Volpe research says Positive Train Control (PTC), will not provide all of the cognitive support functions the conductor currently provides to the locomotive engineer.
Technology does not need to be approached with the final goal of slashing a workforce to save costs and thus fill the pockets of those at the top in the form of higher share prices and lower operating ratios. The FRA Office of Research, Development and Technology report even suggests that new technologies can be layered atop current personnel configurations that carriers operate under, and that approach would make sense from a workers’ safety and public safety standpoint.
Technological advances will not deliver first aid to the person whose vehicle has been struck by a train and is trapped and injured after an accident at a rail crossing. Technological advances will not perform CPR on the co-worker in the cab who suffers a medical event while the train is being operated. Technological advances will not physically assist a co-worker in evacuating when a locomotive has derailed into a river.
That people have survived the above scenarios that have occurred on the nation’s railroads are examples of safe operation as well. Unexpected events and calamities do happen. But definitive data aren’t kept by the FRA or the railroads about accidents that are prevented by worker intervention or assistance that is provided. How can you really track what might have happened if the incident is avoided?
What we can look at what is in the here and now. The level of worker and public safety that the railroad industry has achieved is a result of the collaboration of engineers and conductors and all other employees out in the field. Yes, there are still fatalities — our union lost three members in 2019 — and safety performance can still be improved by adding technology without a further reduction of on-train personnel.
Class I carrier Union Pacific announced Monday that it has completed implementation of Positive Train Control (PTC) on all federally mandated freight and passenger routes requiring the collision avoidance technology.
The carrier still must achieve full interoperability, that is, its PTC system must be able to successfully interact with those systems used by other carriers.
The carrier reports that 16 of 25 railroads it hosts are compliant, encompassing 85% of Union Pacific’s interoperable PTC train miles, and says that full interoperability in conjunction with the other carriers is expected by mid-2020.
PTC is designed to prevent:
Derailments caused by excessive speed;
Accidents that can occur if trains are routed down the incorrect track;
Unauthorized train movements on tracks undergoing maintenance
State Legislative Director Stu Gardner reports that an additional round of testimony has been scheduled for 11 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019, in House Hearing Room 114 in the Ohio Statehouse, 1 Capitol Square in Columbus, regarding H.B. 186, a comprehensive railroad safety bill under consideration in the state’s House of Representatives.
Only proponents of the bill who have not given testimony previously are eligible to state their case for this important legislation that will protect lives and preserve the safety of railroad operations in Ohio.
“Testimony is to be given by those persons (or groups) that have not testified on H.B. 186 previously,” Gardner said. “I am requesting that if you have not given testimony previously, or wish to add new testimony that you have not given before on H.B. 186, now is the time to do so.”
Proper walkways in railroad yard safety legislation
Railroad yard lighting safety legislation
In an email to members, Gardner indicated that the rail carriers requested a fifth hearing (Ohio bills typically receive three committee hearings before being voted upon for advancement to the full state House) due to Mann’s strong proponent testimony delivered Nov. 19.
However, more TD members and others concerned about railroad safety need to step up and be heard, and this fifth hearing could be the last chance to convince representatives that H.B. 186 deserves passage.
“It is up to all of our advocates of the Ohio State Legislative Board and the SMART Transportation Division to step up and let these committee members hear the truth one more time,” Gardner said. “Please come and fill the hearing room, give testimony and show these representatives what we are made of.”
The bill is sponsored by Ohio Reps. Mike Sheehy, a retired rail worker and member of the SMART TD Alumni Association, and Brent Hillyer.
Proponent testimony must be provided to Matthew Taylor in Committee Chairman Doug Green’s office (Matthew.Taylor@ohiohouse.gov.) with the deadline for electronic submission of both written and in-person testimony and a witness slip being 3 p.m. Dec. 9, the Monday before the hearing. On the day of the hearing, witnesses have the option of presenting their testimony in person before the committee if they have submitted the testimony and required witness slip by the deadline.
Instructions for those wishing to testify before the committee:
Prior to committee:
The House Transportation and Public Safety Committee is scheduled to meet on Tuesday mornings at 11 a.m. in House Hearing Room 114 in the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus.
Testimony is to be electronically submitted to the chairman’s office by 3 p.m. Monday afternoon.
A witness slip (fillable PDF) is to be completed prior to the committee meeting and should also be submitted electronically to the chairman’s office.
Testimony and the witness slip can be submitted at the same time and there is no need to send multiple emails.
An update on the railroad industry’s implementation of positive train control (PTC) will be one of the major topics covered in the next meeting of the Rail Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC) scheduled 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Nov. 26, according to a notice published in the Federal Register.
The meeting will be at the National Association of Home Builders, 1201 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20005. Representatives from 29 member organizations, including SMART TD, will convene at the meeting, which is open to the public on a first-come, first-served basis.
The agenda also will include remarks from FRA Administrator Ron Batory and committee reports from the Working Groups for Tourist and Historic Railroads; Track Standards; Passenger Safety; Part 225 Accident Reporting; Train Dispatcher Certification; and Signal Employees Certification and is subject to change, the Federal Register notice stated.
RSAC is a federal advisory committee to the FRA intended to develop railroad safety regulations through a consensus process.
More information about RSAC and a finalized agenda for the meeting will be posted on the RSAC website at least a week in advance of the meeting.
For months now, your union has been collecting hundreds of reports from members of our and other rail unions that document instances when railroad technology doesn’t work as intended.
While carriers might see technology as a stepping-stone to more money and the eventual replacement of employees with full automation, we want to collect real-world data showing that sometimes these “improved” technologies are more of a stumbling block when not working as intended.
Data is being collected via a form on the SMART TD website directly linked at (www.smart-union.org/railroad-technology-event-report) or look for the red flashing button on right of the main page, then follow that link to report incidences involving Positive Train Control, Trip Optimizer/LEADER, DPU (distributed power), EOT/HTD’s or radio transmission failures among crew members when dealing with long trains.
The real-world data that members contribute helps our organization to formulate a plan to protect members and the general public and to ensure the safety of the nation’s infrastructure, and this information is being sought on a voluntary basis, said Alternate National Legislative Director Jared Cassity, who helped to create the report form.
“The railroads like to tout there is no data to support that two-person crews are safer than a one-person crew. The irony, however, is that the counter-point to their argument is also true — there is no data to support that one-person crews are any safer than two-person crews either,” he said. “Over the years [they] have purposefully chosen to not collect the data, despite having the ability to do so, because they know the truth will hurt their position.”
The way to combat this is by gathering reports from the people who are dealing directly with the situations created when the technology does not function as intended, Cassity said.
“By members submitting this very important information we are able to provide the one thing the railroads cannot or will not — data,” Cassity said. “And that data proves these technological safety overlay systems are not capable of replacing the human element, specifically two-person crews.”
Reports submitted through this form go to union safety leadership for collection. The reports are not a substitute for filling out a report to a carrier or to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).
“The railroads have fired the first shot in this round of the crew-consist war, and we need all hands on deck, everyone doing their part to complete these reports,” Cassity said. “This data may very well just be what makes the difference.”
In an interview with Trains Magazine’s Ralph Spielman, New Jersey Transit (NJT) President and CEO Kevin Corbett said that the passenger carrier has much progress to make in its implementation of Positive Train Control (PTC) in order to meet the deadline for full implementation.
The carrier is currently in the testing phase of its system, especially the software, Corbett said, but the deadline isn’t far away.
“As it gets closer to the deadline, it’s a little bit like the Y2K scare. On Jan. 1, 2021, what’s going to happen? Will it impact scheduling? Will there be less flexibility? You won’t be able necessarily have someone run from the back to the front air brake for a quick mechanical fix. The software will be dependable and will mold the schedule, but with it, you cannot cut corners inappropriately. A lot of the veterans would say they would know how to respond safely [but] the thing is now it all has to be reset; It’s all in the software,” Corbett told Spielman.
All U.S. carriers are required to achieve full PTC function by Dec. 31, 2020.
Corbett also discussed recent equipment acquisitions by the carrier and the status of the North Portal Bridge project.