In a letter sent Jan. 5, 2023, to the CEOs of the seven Class I railroads operating in the United States as well as to Association of American Railroads (AAR) President/CEO Ian Jeffries, Federal Railroad Administrator Amit Bose warned them that “incremental” changes to carriers’ training, qualification and certification programs have in some cases not solved numerous deficiencies identified by FRA audits over the past 18 months.
“Please be advised that FRA is committed to pursuing enforcement action if a railroad’s resubmitted certification program continues to fail to address the deficiencies identified by FRA,” Bose wrote. “Accordingly, whenever FRA conducts its audit of your railroad, FRA will take into account those opportunities FRA has already provided your railroad to correct or address previously identified deficiencies.
“I want to remind industry that the quality and adequacy of these certification programs are fundamental to ensuring that your operating crews are properly trained to safely perform their assigned duties,” Bose wrote. “This starts with certification programs that clearly meet the minimum training and qualification standards.”
The Federal Railroad Administration published a safety bulletin Dec. 29 regarding an unintended release of a train’s air brakes while stopped at a signal. The text of the advisory as published in the Federal Register is reproduced below.
FRA is issuing Safety Advisory 2022-02 to make the rail industry aware of a recent issue encountered by a train crew that experienced an unintended brake release of a train’s automatic air brakes while stopped at a signal, and to recommend steps addressing the unintended release of train air brakes.
On June 22, 2022, during a significant thunderstorm, a crew consisting of a locomotive engineer and conductor operated a conventionally powered, intermodal train with 3 head-end locomotives, 47 loaded cars, and 6 empty cars, totaling 9,204 feet in length and 7,392 tons in weight. The engineer stopped the train on a downhill grade of 0.9-1.18% near the signal governing the train’s movement, set the train’s air brakes at approximately 12 pounds, and fully set the locomotive consist’s independent brakes. After being stopped for approximately 3 hours, the engineer and conductor, located in the lead locomotive cab, observed the train roll towards the signal interlocking displaying a stop indication. This train experienced an unintended automatic brake release. The locomotive consist’s independent brakes remained fully applied but due to the grade, tonnage and wet rail could not solely hold the train without the automatic air brakes also being applied.
At that time, an opposing train on the same track was preparing to cross through the interlocking in front of the rolling train. The locomotive engineer of the rolling train applied full-service airbrakes and full dynamic braking but was not satisfied that the brakes were working effectively or fast enough. The conductor operated the emergency brake valve and stopped the train short of the signal and the train that was preparing to cross through the interlocking.
The crew then contacted the dispatcher and railroad management to report the unintended brake release and the conductor set a sufficient number of car handbrakes to hold the train on the grade.
FRA’s investigation of the rolling train’s event recorder, positive train control (PTC) system, and engine data logs, revealed: the PTC system had operated properly and would have initiated an emergency brake application upon reaching the signal; the Trip Optimizer was off; and the lead locomotive and consist did not cause the unintended brake release. Instead, FRA determined that, after approximately three hours with the air brakes set, the air pressure slowly bled down from some of the cars’ auxiliary reservoirs, likely causing localized brake releases. The initiation of the brake release would enable the accelerated release functionality by taking some air from the emergency brake reservoirs and directing it back into the brake pipe resulting in a substantial number of adjacent car brakes releasing. Potentially contributing factors causing the train’s unintended movement included the downhill grade, wet rail, and the train’s tonnage.
Due to the potential for air brake system leaks, FRA prohibits unattended trains from depending solely on air brakes to hold equipment. While the aforementioned rolling train was attended, it nevertheless engaged in an unintended movement.
Based on FRA’s review of this incident, and its awareness of other train incidents involving an unintended air brake release under similar circumstances, FRA believes operating guidance is warranted to help reduce the likelihood of similar unintended air brake releases, and therefore makes the following recommendations.
1. Train crews should not expect a service rate or emergency brake application to indefinitely maintain application of a train’s air brakes.
2. If a train is stopped with air brakes set, and the train begins moving, the crew should immediately apply the emergency brake. After the train is stopped, the crew should set a sufficient number of handbrakes to secure the train from further unintended movement before releasing the brakes and recharging the train’s air brake system.
3. Each railroad should adopt and implement an air brake procedure consistent with Recommendations 1 and 2 that addresses unintended brake releases.
4. Each railroad should have an operating supervisor conduct a face-to-face meeting with each locomotive engineer and conductor to explain and reinforce the contents of this advisory.
FRA may modify Safety Advisory 2022-02, issue additional safety advisories, or take other appropriate necessary action to ensure the highest level of safety on the Nation’s railroads.
Issued in Washington, DC.
John Karl Alexy,
Associate Administrator for Railroad Safety, Chief Safety Officer.
1. FRA notes this type of prolonged pressure release would likely not be identified during a periodic single car air brake test. Back to Citation
The Federal Railroad Administration’s Office of Railroad Safety issued the following bulletin on Dec. 20, 2022:
SUBJECT: Pre-Departure Inspections – Appendix D to 49 CFR Part 215
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is investigating a recent fatal accident when a train operating on the mainline struck a piece of angle iron protruding from a freight car on the adjacent main track. Based on FRA’s preliminary results from its ongoing investigation, the piece of angle iron appears to have been part of the freight car (not lading, but a repair to the carbody side top cord of a scrap metal gondola car) that was starting to dislodge from the carbody. It appears that the piece of angle iron was in this state when the car was pulled from the customer, moved to a yard, and then added to a different train on the main track. The angle iron, which was protruding into the foul of the adjacent track, pierced a locomotive cab window and fatally injured a member of the crew.
The purpose of this Safety Bulletin, which is informal in nature, is to provide almost-immediate awareness to the industry that an accident or incident occurred resulting in a fatality or significant damage to property or the environment. Its purpose is to also provide the industry key information with which to brief or (re)train employees. As FRA completes its investigation, it may take additional actions with respect to this incident/accident.
Specifically, in this Safety Bulletin, FRA requests that railroads review this Safety Bulletin with its employees to increase awareness of this hazardous condition that led to a fatal injury. FRA also reminds train crew members that when at locations where a person designated under § 215.11 is not on duty for the purpose of inspecting freight cars (such as in customer facilities), prior to pulling any cars and only when it is safe to do so, to perform a proper visual inspection of freight cars for any protruding objects that may foul an adjacent track from a railcar, and if observing such a condition to immediately report it. See Appendix D to 49 CFR Part 215, Pre-Departure Inspection Procedure (excerpted below).
Appendix D to Part 215 – Pre-departure Inspection Procedure
At each location where a freight car is placed in a train and a person designated under § 215.11 is not on duty for the purpose of inspecting freight cars, the freight car shall, as a minimum, be inspected for the imminently hazardous conditions listed below that are likely to cause an accident or casualty before the train arrives at its destination. These conditions are readily discoverable by a train crew member in the course of a customary inspection.
1. Car body:
(a) Leaning or listing to side.
(b) Sagging downward.
(c) Positioned improperly on truck.
(d) Object dragging below.
(e) Object extending from side.
(f) Door insecurely attached.
(g) Broken or missing safety appliance.
(h) Lading leaking from a placarded hazardous material car.
2. Insecure coupling.
3. Overheated wheel or journal.
4. Broken or extensively cracked wheel.
5. Brake that fails to release.
6. Any other apparent safety hazard likely to cause an accident or casualty before the train arrives at its destination.
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) held its much-anticipated hearing Dec. 14 to receive public testimony on its Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) regarding a minimum train crew size.
As it was set up, representatives from just two Class I carriers — Union Pacific and Norfolk Southern — the Association of American Railroads (AAR) and representatives of the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA) spoke first, followed by labor representatives.
On its face, this setup seemed to work to the benefit of the testimony of labor — the SMART Transportation Division (SMART-TD), Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO (TTD).
With the viability of the conductor profession on the line before regulators — a position that the carriers continually attempted to stress in testimony that from their perspective was “outmoded” or “obsolete,” carriers put forth their argument that single-person crews and nomadic conductors would in no way worsen the already frail condition of the freight rail industry.
The Precision Scheduled Railroading playbook would call the conductor position “the largest impediment to reduced Operating Ratios on the line” that the stakes were too high not to anticipate political theater.
To that end, economists and second-tier carrier executives alike offered flimsy, speculative and hard-to-follow arguments that were highlighted by the premise that UP and NS want to take conductors off of trains in order to improve the quality of life for their conductors. They peppered in the fact that short line operators are going to have difficulty petitioning FRA for variance on these rules based on “nominal” details such as the percentage of their trackage that is on grades, the tonnage of hazardous materials they haul, and the fact that their engines aren’t equipped with alerters.
Among other arguments made by carriers were that:
A roving conductor dispatched in a truck from the crew room can get to and change a knuckle in two-thirds the time a conductor on the train could.
Company-provided cell phones would be used to fill the safety gap created by removing the conductor. (A major shift from them being biggest safety concern for operating crew distraction for the last decade and ignoring the fact that FRA law states cell phones are to be off and store out of reach.)
Having a single employee is simpler, and simpler is safer.
A second employee creates a distraction for the engineer.
The negative effects of cognitive demand placed on engineers by rail technology is speculative in nature.
And of course, Positive Train Control is the answer to all things conducting.
All of the carrier presentations neglected that FRA’s chief duty is to apply regulations when necessary in matters of safe and efficient transport of goods and passengers across the United States. Nowhere does it say that the FRA’s job is to align itself so that carriers have the easiest course to make money.
Following lunch, FRA’s board received a steady diet of facts upon hearing labor’s side of the argument. Simple to follow, devoid of the pretzel logic used by the carriers and buoyed by the reality of working on the railroad in the 21st century was given by BLET Vice President Vincent Verna, AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department President Greg Regan and SMART TD’s own President Jeremy Ferguson.
“There is no greater risk to the safety of railroad workers and the communities they serve than the consideration of a reduction in crew size in the cab of a locomotive,” Ferguson testified. “Having conductors on trains saves lives and prevents disasters in ways technology cannot. Artificial intelligence absolutely has a role to play, but it cannot replace authentic human intelligence in railroading.”
Everyone who has worked on a railroad has had a close call, one of the reasons why the bigger carriers don’t want to participate in the voluntary C3RS system. The likely outcome being that a huge flood of data would come in showing just how important the conductor is to avoiding accidents, like an engineer’s experience President Ferguson mentioned in which a conductor got a three-year-old boy off the tracks before he was struck by the locomotive.
Labor also discussed:
How “Menu Diving” in display screens keeps an engineer’s eyes off the rails.
How PTC is a safety overlay not intended to be a replacement of manpower and is inoperable at yard speeds.
How artificial Intelligence is not a substitute for authentic human intelligence when something goes wrong.
How the Railroad Technology graveyard is full of gizmos that were supposed to be “the answer”
How removing the conductor from the cab will increase blocked crossings — “the public’s No. 1 complaint”
How removing the conductor from the cab eliminates all ability of a train crew to fulfill its role as first responders in emergencies.
How advocating for conductors to remain on locomotives is advocating for avoiding unnecessary safety risks.
Single-person operations and the nomadic “expediter” model carriers are looking to pilot already have flaws that make the concept impractical on its face, Ferguson also said.
“God forbid an equipment failure occurs on the line of road without a conductor readily available to act in a moment’s notice, but especially if the train has an entire community blocked off. There is little a lone engineer can do in that situation,” Ferguson said. “I want to be realistic here. The only way that we can assure the safest course is protected during train operations is by maintaining two crewmembers in the cab of the locomotive.”
Counter to the double-talk carriers make about safety being their top priority, their business practices, ruthless cuts and a continued deterioration of service, as well as an express desire of wanting to cut even more employees, shows that the fight over crew size isn’t about better service or running a safer, more efficient railroad — it’s about the bottom line.
“The railroads have proven their willingness to make decisions that are not in the interests of safety, but rather are in the interests of profit and shareholder wealth,” Ferguson said. “Railroad safety isn’t just for the men and women working on the rails. It’s for everyday citizens that take for granted that the railroad is safe. Without a doubt, I can attest that the removal of the conductor, should it be permitted, from the cab of the locomotive will not just be catastrophic to all rail workers, it will be inimical to the American public.”
Following the testimony of Verna, Ferguson and Regan, three conductors and one BLET Auxiliary member, the spouse of an engineer, did an excellent job reinforcing the vital role conductors play in our nation’s safety and commercial viability.
The battle for two-person crews capped an important week for rail labor. Labor rallies occurred Dec. 13 in nine locations around the country, including at Capitol Hill, in conjunction with the STB hearing regarding UP embargoes and the FRA hearing to bring attention to the negative effects PSR has had on the rail labor workforce and the dangerous territory carriers have pushed the industry into.
There should be a word of caution attached to this positive attention. First, we are dealing with the federal government and Railroad Corporations, so we should absolutely be aware that just because logic is on our side, that absolutely does not ensure that we will win the day. On Dec. 14, your union leadership took the fight to the carriers and outclassed them. Now it is your turn to do the same.
The SMART Transportation Division would like to thank Johnny Walker, (Local 610, Baltimore, Md.) , Nick Jochim, (Local 904, Evansville, Ind.), Jessica Martin (Local 594, Mineola, Texas), Natalie Miller of BLET Auxiliary’s Nebraska chapter, and SMART-TD Utah State Legislative Director Dan Brewer (Local 1554, Ogden, Utah) for providing additional testimony reinforcing why two should stay on the crew.
Due to the importance of the issue and the record response, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has extended the comment period for the Noticed of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on a two-person minimum freight crew size rule, the SMART Transportation Division National Legislative Department reports.
The new deadline for SMART-TD members, rail labor and the public to let their voices be heard in this pivotal conversation about the safety of U.S. railroad operations is now Dec. 21st, 2022.
“Please keep the pressure on and the pedal down as we fight together for our safety and our jobs,” said National Legislative Director Greg Hynes. “We’ve blown well past the level of comments that the prior NPRM received after it was introduced in 2016, getting almost 10 times the number of comments it received.
“There are a lot of things going on, but we need to keep spreading the word about the Rule of 2 and how it is essential to rail safety. If you have not commented on how important it is to maintain rail staffing at the current safe level, you still have time to do so!”
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) announced Sept. 22 that the public comment period for the two-person crew size Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) has been extended.
Stakeholders now have an additional 60 days to show their support for the minimum crew size of two in the cab of trains nationwide. The previous deadline was Sept. 26.
“This extension was requested by congressional Republicans on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and was granted by the FRA,” National Legislative Director Greg Hynes said.
He also pointed out that extensions are normal under rules of this magnitude: “It allows concerned members of the public and railroad workers alike to continue to support the truth — that safe train operations in this country are best maintained by following the Rule of Two.”
Most topics divide our organization to varying degrees. It’s a healthy debate that assists SMART to formulate majority-based positions on the many issues for which they advocate on our membership’s behalf.
The belief that there should be a minimum of two persons on a train crew is not one of those topics. Overwhelmingly, the most-common topic that my fellow Transportation Division brothers and sisters ask about is the status of a two-person crew legislation/regulation. A consensus of our membership strongly believes in the necessity of legislative or regulatory action requiring rail carriers to crew trains with a minimum of two people in the locomotive cab.
Here is some great news: The FRA has announced its intent to make a formal federal regulation mandating the minimum crew size on most trains to be no less than a crew of two in locomotive cab. SMART TD paved the way to get the process to this point by ensuring elected and appointed officials were both educated and aware of our position on the topic.
The next step in the process is the public comment period that expires on Sept. 26.
Who can and should comment? All rail employees, regardless of craft and labor organization. All our allies and stakeholders, including legislators, community leaders, first responders, neighbors and business leaders should comment. Our family members and friends are also persons of interest whose comments the FRA wants to hear.
Please don’t be intimidated by the process. I assure you it’s quick, easy and painless. I completed my comments and the entire process in less than five minutes.
The governor of Kansas Laura Kelly (D) recently demonstrated her support for SMART-TD members and their safety by submitting comments to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in support of a national two-person crew regulation.
“I am pleased to announce that Governor Kelly has joined our fight at the federal level,” Kansas State Legislative Director Ty Dragoo said. “We asked her to support our efforts with the proposed rulemaking by issuing comments from the state of Kansas, and she has shown once again that she is with rail labor.”
“As Governor of the state of Kansas, I directed my Department of Transportation to submit a proposed regulation requiring railroads that operate in the state to maintain a two-person crew in the controlling cab of the lead locomotive unit of each train. I believed that this was a needed step to preserve safe operation of the rail industry in Kansas. Having one person responsible for an 18,000+ ton train hauling hazardous materials jeopardizes the safety of our crews and the public at large,” Governor Kelly wrote in her comments.
Not only did Gov. Kelly write in support of two-person crews, she also cited instances of when two-person crews were necessary to protect her state during derailments and pointed out that as two persons currently operate trains on nearly all railroads in the state, no additional costs would be incurred by the regulation.
SAN FRANCISCO — Federal Railroad Administrator Amit Bose didn’t elaborate on the Rule of 2 that his agency recently put forth for the public to weigh in on, but he made it clear as he spoke on the second day of the SMART Leadership Conference that the lines of communication at his agency are open.
And comments are encouraged, he said.
“We truly appreciate your insights in keeping us informed on a daily basis of the things you see and hear, especially when reporting potentially unsafe conditions,” Bose said.
Safety inspections and audits are up at the agency, and the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on the Rule of Two, which requires a minimum of two crew members on trains, is open for public comment.
The past year and a half of work at the agency has been focused on undoing a questionable course taken under the prior administration in regard to safe rail operations, Bose said, so much of his time has been spent reorienting FRA so that safety is the end goal.
“I want you all to know that my North Star is and always will be safety. It’s about safety. The word ‘politics’ doesn’t enter into my thinking in any way in any part of my day,” Bose said. “I don’t know where politics was from January 2017 to January 2021, I can tell you that some of the decisions that the previous administration made, that word was definitely in there.”
Among the changes by Bose — a reactivation of the Rail Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC) and the resumption of safety audits of Class I carriers.
“FRA shares SMART’s commitment to make sure rail operations are safe for workers, rail passengers and the public,” he said.
Bose said that his agency has been and will remain available to hear worker concerns.
“We’ll act promptly to correct problems within FRA’s purview and, for matters that don’t, lend FRA’s voice to bring about workable solutions,” Bose said.
Transportation Division President Jeremy Ferguson thanked Administrator Bose for taking the time to appear before the union.
“He truly is pointing FRA in a good direction for our members’ safety and for a better rail system in the United States,” President Ferguson said.
It’s a shame, really, that the safety of my members, the public and the infrastructure are nothing more than political pawns in the railroads’ game of never-ending greed. And it’s a shame, frankly, that the railroads manipulate woefully inept individuals – having never meaningfully walked the ballast or performed the myriad tasks of a conductor or engineer from inside the cab of a locomotive – and contributing editors, to carry their water in the hopes of somehow creating a narrative that corporate profit (as compared to safety) is the greater good.
On Tuesday, August 2, Railway Age published an article titled “Biden Promise Fueled FRA NPRM,” wherein its author bows to his superiors’ bidding and attempts to make the case that data is in their favor. But to do so, he had to sharpshoot for supporting documentation and data, blindly whisking by the plethora of reports and studies that stand as mountains between them and reality, and he had to bend quotes and statements made as if he were some sort of deceitful, abstract performer.
Only in corporate America can a promise of maintaining the safest course be misconstrued to the public as being unethical. In fact, it seems quite ironic that the article’s author accuses this Union of being a special interest when the former FRA Administrator broke from the agency’s position and capitulated to the railroad executives’ pressure by withdrawing the ongoing crew size regulation, only to be defeated in federal court.
The rationale is sound, and the need for regulation is necessary. I find it ridiculous that the author of a book theoretically explaining the purpose and processes of the Railway Labor Act is incapable of comprehending the role of politics in the prioritization of safety and the overall welfare of America’s railroad workers.
The Many Omissions of a Man Not Actually from the Industry
Railroading is a high-risk industry. And like all other high-risk industries, teamwork is the most critical component. Over the last two decades railroads have achieved their safest and richest era because of the two-person crew. Ironically, however, is the industry’s failure to record and report its near misses. Unlike aviation, which has had a near-miss reporting system for years, the railroads have fought off FRA’s and labor’s many attempts to capture the data of accidents that didn’t occur because of the actions of a two-person crew. Had that data been collected, the truth of the safety benefits of a two-person crew could have long been made public.
Rightfully, the NPRM seeks to act where collective bargaining cannot. It is an asinine notion to consider that safety should be subject to the chopping block by way of the negotiating table. After all, the FRA’s mandate is to “enable the safe, reliable, and efficient movement of people and goods.” So why should they suggest that safety somehow be up for negotiation when the gambling of rail workers’ lives would clearly be a dereliction of duty, especially when there is no data to support it?
“Another item omitted is the fallacy of the PTC and locomotive technological systems as they exist today. Every day, our members report dozens, if not hundreds, of initial-terminal and en route failures across the nation’s rail network. Train crews have literally learned not to depend on its functionality, but rather to anticipate it dropping out.”
The Class I industry does not employ a single-person crew concept on any territory. The fact is, there is no data to support or suggest what would happen should a reduction be permitted to occur. Therefore, in the absence of data, the determination (should it happen) to remove a crew member from the cab of a locomotive equates to nothing more than risk.
The author attempts to blur that reality by comparing operations on short-line railroads and one-off situations, but he fails to present in his article that these railroads are much smaller in size, slower in on-track movements, and far less complicated than their big brother counterparts; not to mention that their train consists are vastly shorter and lighter as well.
Another item omitted is the fallacy of the PTC and locomotive technological systems as they exist today. Every day, our members report dozens, if not hundreds, of initial-terminal and en route failures across the nation’s rail network. Train crews have literally learned not to depend on its functionality, but rather to anticipate it dropping out. The author offers no viable option for this scenario, but rather pretends to portray the system as absolute, despite having no real-world knowledge. It is because of the two-person crew that this problem has not been exacerbated into catastrophe.
Likewise, PTC also does not account for the growing length of trains. In the railroads’ pursuit of the lowest operating ratio, which is nothing more than an industry-created measure to exhibit to Wall Street that a railroad can cut its way to profits, the average length of trains has grown exponentially; a concept the carriers have lovingly embraced. Unfortunately, for the communities in which these railroad properties intersect, derailments and blocked crossings have become a plague to society. By theoretically placing a conductor into a ground-based vehicle, the only known variable that will arise in these instances is that the conductor will most likely not be in place to act in an emergency, much less with any urgency. As it stands, a conductor is readily available on the locomotive to act as a first responder at a moment’s notice. A routine that has been proven time and time again.
“To be blunt, this nation’s regulatory agencies should not allow corporate entities to self-regulate, as their bottom line obscures the purpose and promise of their mission to keep their employees’ work environment safe.”
However, should a railroad desire to veer from the safest course, it may attempt to do so through the proposed rule’s waiver process, which the author, trying to charm his influencers, portrays as an unfair level of scrutiny and rigged process. His words, which are nothing more than an amplification of the railroads’, reek of similarities to Boeing’s cries to the FAA years before the 737 Max accidents.
To be blunt, this nation’s regulatory agencies should not allow corporate entities to self-regulate, as their bottom line obscures the purpose and promise of their mission to keep their employees’ work environment safe. Like eyes following the bouncing ball of karaoke lyrics, rail carriers have proven their willingness to abruptly reverse course in capitulation to outside pressures originating from their hedge fund investors. It is because of this that the NPRM’s waiver process is necessary, and is exactly why it must be transparent, rigorous and thorough.
Common sense safety provisions do not stymie or impede future innovation, they protect it, and any assertion to the contrary is absurd. The railroads, like aviation, have realized their greatest advancements in technology with a crew of two at the controls. Now, they want you to believe that the industry that could afford more than $10 billion in stock buybacks last year alone would somehow be hampered by a regulation such as this.
Rest assured, nothing could be further from the truth. And rest assured that it does not require a single-person crew to provide a better quality of life. There is absolutely nothing preventing America’s rail carriers from providing its workforce with predictable work schedules, more time at home, increased authority, larger rates of pay and protection against furlough. Yet here we are: three and a half years at the negotiating table and forced to a Presidential Emergency Board because the carriers are unwilling to negotiate the very terms described within the author’s article. Let me be clear, quality of life is not a bargaining chip to be used as blackmail against the safety of my members, especially when the carriers have the means and funds to grant it.
The Mystery Argument of Data, Despite the Absence of Actual or Comparable Data
A railroad is not a railroad, but a spade is a spade. As stated earlier, there are no Class I railroad over-the-road single-person crew operations in this nation, and a Class I in comparison to a commuter, Class II or any other designation does not a good argument make.
This country’s railroad network is unlike any other in the world. On average, according to Operation Lifesaver, there is a collision between a train and a person or vehicle every three hours. Astonishingly, there is no process to record and/or report the near-misses that didn’t occur because of the actions of a two-person crew. As a result, it is unknown just how great of an effect a reduction in crew size could have toward an unwanted increase in these types of accidents. This is important because other foreign countries, as the author referenced as being relevant, do not have the same exposures to the public that we do. Their success, if you will, does not equate to our success, as it may very well result in the detriment to our communities.
Additionally, foreign freight trains are much smaller by comparison. According to a FreightWaves article published April 3, 2019, (U.S. and European freight railroads are on different tracks), “… [U.S.] freight trains are often 3,500 meters (2.175 miles) in length; in western Europe, freight train lengths are closer to 750 meters (less than one-half mile).” Simple physics will tell you that fewer rail cars and lighter tonnage will result in fewer mechanical failures, and the ability to stop in less time and drastically shorter distances. Common sense will also tell you that shorter trains result in fewer blocked crossings.
FRA’s January 2020 Final Report, Teamwork in Railroad Operations and Implications for New Technology, states that “[c]onductors also provide several additional cognitive support functions to locomotive engineers that PTC does not provide. These functions include supporting locomotive engineers in monitoring events outside the cab window for potential obstacles and hazards that would not be detected by automated systems (e.g., people working on or around the track; trespasser; cars at grade crossings). They also include filling knowledge gaps that locomotive engineers may have (e.g., knowledge of the territory; appropriate interpretation of operating rules) and supporting decision-making (e.g., where to stop to avoid blocking a grade crossing). Knowledge and decision-making support is especially important in the case of less experienced locomotive engineers. Conductors also serve an important role in handling unanticipated events and keeping the locomotive engineer alert, especially on long monotonous trips where there is a risk of falling asleep.”
“The mass exodus of workers in today’s railroad industry will have a long-term, adverse effect on the knowledge and skill base of conductors and engineers. Experience cannot be taught in a classroom. It takes years for these workers to hone their craft.”
The Class I railroads are currently hemorrhaging experienced, mid-career locomotive engineers and conductors. This has had a devastating impact on the supply chain, and this will have a devastating impact on long-term viability. It is no surprise to us that America’s rail shippers have taken to the Surface Transportation Board and the media to speak out against the railroads’ greed and inability to provide a quality service.
But this is particularly important, however, considering what the FRA’s report had to say above – “[conductors] fill knowledge gaps that locomotive engineers may have and [they] support decision making.” The mass exodus of workers in today’s railroad industry will have a long-term, adverse effect on the knowledge and skill base of conductors and engineers. Experience cannot be taught in a classroom. It takes years for these workers to hone their craft. PTC does not and cannot account for that, nor can the locomotive’s energy management systems. Only can the cognitive and collaborative efforts of teamwork overcome a hurdle as large as this.
Yet, in spite of all this, the Class I railroads are actively pursuing the ability to fast-track single-person crew operations without having vetted or tested a single proven or reliable method of operation, because this is just about the only card they have left to play to lower their operating ratios and to perform one last-ditch act for their audience of demanding shareholders. Like puppets on a string, they are succumbing to outside, misguided pressures.
That is why this regulation is needed, and that is why it’s needed with urgency.
As to the author’s rambling of data-to-come – the condemnatory flaw can only be found in his rant. FRA’s purpose is to prevent unsafe conditions from occurring. By his own admission, the collection of credible data is still being developed. But rather than wait for confirmation, the author proclaims that the agency should throw caution to the wind, like chance in the game of Risk, and allow the railroads to continue their current crew-reduction trajectory, despite, once again, not having any data to support his position. At least with a two-person crew, we know that the safest era in railroading history has been achieved. That is one data point that cannot be manipulated. And that is one data point worthy of protecting.
Similarly, and as stated before, the two-person crew has brought about the richest era in Class I railroading history. The Unions are proud of this fact, and we acknowledge that this is a direct representation of our members’ work. So, it is a slap in the face for the author to try so obtusely to make the argument that the railroads would somehow see a negative economic impact when all of the history and data points to the contrary. Ironically, former FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo is criticized in the article for “limit[ing] research to just those sources you want to hear from.” Perhaps the man who wrote these words should take a look in the mirror.
The Safest Way
Without question, the author of the Railway Age article has wonderfully performed like a jester for his majesty’s court. But in the end, it’s nothing more than a shame that he is willing to dance for the railroads as they fill their pockets and turn a deaf ear to my members as they cry out for help.
We do however agree with the author’s statement that our predecessor organization did support PTC in the initial stages. We had members that were a part of the FRA RSAC committee tasked with the development and implementation of PTC. During these jointly-held meetings between the FRA, Rail carriers and union craft members, the carriers stated that PTC was a safety overlay system and not a conduit to replace the conductor. Repeatedly they stated PTC’s implementation was to enhance safety in an attempt to eliminate, as much as possible, human error. As the safety of our members is paramount, we supported and embraced this technology. Our position did not change until the carriers, in an attempt to find a way to lessen the financial burden of PTC, used their handpicked FRA Administrator, an ex-Rail Carrier CEO, to reverse course and state that PTC could now overcome many known faults and shortcomings and miraculously replace the conductor.
“…the carriers stated that PTC was a safety overlay system and not a conduit to replace the conductor. Repeatedly they stated PTC’s implementation was to enhance safety in an attempt to eliminate, as much as possible, human error.”
However, that is where the author’s accuracy ends, and like most things he has written, the author is wrong. PTC does not take the place of a conductor and it does not support the engineer. If anything, it increases the task load. If the carriers would have followed the RSAC committees’ recommendations and placed an operating PTC screen and controls on the conductor’s side of the locomotive, it would have reduced the current task overload that has greatly stricken the vast majority of engineers. PTC is extremely user intensive, requiring constant input and manipulation, and it prevents an engineer from being able to observe his/her territory. Since the advent of PTC and its subsequent implementation, the importance of the conductor’s role within the cab of a locomotive has never been greater. It was determined that the conductor could verify mandatory directives, handle safety-related tasks such as work authorities and confirm PTC alerts in conjunction with the engineer.
Every single day an accident is prevented because of the actions of a conductor, and every single day that data is not collected. In some cases, it may have been by utilizing the emergency brake that is located on the conductor’s side of the locomotive, again correcting the author’s error by stating that there are no controls on that side of the locomotive.
In the end, it all comes down to two outcomes. Is the FRA best served protecting and maintaining a crew size that is known to be safe; that is known to be the best model for customer service; that is known to have made the railroads more money than ever; and is known to have a process via the regulation (should it occur) to have a means and method of allowing for the safe and controlled testing of different crew sizes? Or is it best served to risk chance and see what happens with a reduction in crew size that has no measurable baseline for safety; that has no baseline for profit; and has no baseline for customer service?
Obviously, there is only one outcome for which FRA has the legal authority and obligation to act.
As has been said throughout history, the truth will always be brought to light. And you, too, can look that up.
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 different crafts, including as bus and commuter rail operators, in the transportation industry.