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.
With just one day left in the submission period, SMART-TD asks all of you to submit comments to the FRA for this NPRM on two-person crews. We have almost 13,000 comments as of now and, this is not the time to let off the gas pedal, even though labor outshined the carriers’ efforts.
If you haven’t submitted a comment, please do. If you have submitted a comment, please have your spouse, children, parents and friends submit comments.
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.
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