Va. SLD: What degree of safety do you want?

Published: January 27, 2015

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The following letter to the editor of the The Roanoke Times by SMART Transportation Division Virginia State Legislative Director was published Jan. 26.

Re: the Dec. 26 article “Railroads want only one person at helm of trains”:

The article quotes Allan Zarembski “It’s a question of how much of a degree of safety do you want?”

That statement truly is spot on. There are so many situations in society where we can do things a certain way but choose differently for various reasons. The railroad industry seems to be ramping up its efforts to justify reducing from two crew members down to one. Only certain trains to begin with, they say, but I imagine if you give them that inch, the mile isn’t far behind.

Using technology to justify the use of one person to operate a train instead of two would make sense to me also if I were a for-profit business and thought this allowed me the opportunity to cut labor costs dramatically — it is just natural to a capitalistic business model. Unfortunately, this same minimalist model is devoid of any sense of duty in relation to public concern or public safety, and typically remains so until a calamity drives up the cost of that model. With our nation’s railroads running through just about every major and moderately sized metropolitan center, and with the sheer volume of hazardous material they carry, we cannot afford to roll the dice on safety.

Consider oil trains like the one that wrecked in Lynchburg, running through the state on their way to Yorktown, each one carrying the approximate equivalent of 330 truckloads, and ethanol trains coming through Roanoke hauling 200 truckloads or more at a time. The level of catastrophe that an incident can reach is highly disproportionate to that of trucks, almost all of which use a single driver. A recent example of such a catastrophe is the inferno in Canada at Lac Megantic, which incinerated the small downtown and 47 people. Many of these individuals were out celebrating a birthday party, just living life, expecting to go home, go to sleep, and get up the following day to a life of kids and grandkids and parents and spouses and lovers (just like we all do so many nights here in Roanoke, as the trains pass within a stone’s throw of the downtown district).

That railroad was using a lone person to operate its trains in Canada because they did not have an agreement with a union requiring more. In the recent Lynchburg derailment, the onboard conductor the railroads would like to eliminate was there to go back and cut away the lead cars of the train from the wrecked cars, thereby greatly lessening the amount of available combustible material. He was also able to alert people and businesses in the area to evacuate immediately.

Even if the railroads agree to continue the use of two crew members when hauling hazardous materials, the problem is that these hazmat trains would be operating on the same tracks as trains with only one person onboard (these new lone operator trains would share the same rails as Amtrak too; one less failsafe to prevent a potentially horrific wreck with a passenger train).

There is more to handling trains than going from point A to point B. Trains can be more than two miles in length at times. Train crews can’t just pull over to use the bathroom, or stop and get a cup of coffee, or pull into a rest stop for a quick 30-minute nap. Most train crews have no set schedule and are called to work on just two hours’ notice, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, including almost all holidays. I can tell you from personal experience that having the other person in the cab of the locomotive is lifesaving at times. We who run the trains welcome technology that adds a level of safety to train operations and lessens the hazards of the environment we work in, but not the use of that technology to open the door to riskier operations.

The extra cost to society in having to pay a minute fraction more for products so that trains have two crew members instead of one is insignificant. Residents in Roanoke, Richmond, Charlottesville, Alexandria and Bristol, to name just a few, should expect a greater level of safety out of our transportation system than what those innocent people in Lac Megantic received. Ensuring all trains have a certified conductor and engineer onboard is paramount to providing that level of safety.