FRA rule gives us chance to bar most one-person crew trains

The freight railroads would have the public believe that operating massive freight trains with a single crew member is perfectly safe. We know those claims are not true and fortunately so does our government which just issued proposed regulations establishing a two-person crew minimum on most trains. We applaud those rules and will push to make them as tough and rigid as possible.

If former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was alive today, he would probably tell the railroads, “you’re entitled to your opinion, but not your own facts.” Despite erroneous claims by the industry lobby that there is a lack of “conclusive statistical data” to support a two-person crew standard, we know from data gleaned from reports on accidents, crashes and fatalities as well as the real-life experiences of frontline employees, that the arguments in favor of a two-person crew standard are compelling.

The railroads rely on skewed statistical analysis to argue that a lack of accidents from the use of one-person crews means that this two-person train crew rule isn’t needed. The reality is that almost all trains in America operate with two crew members and thankfully, one-person crew operations are still the rare exception. Of course there is not a great deal of data available. More to the point, the safety statistics in today’s industry are a product of the skill and professionalism of the two-person and three-person crews that operate trains across America today.

Federal regulators’ own research underscores the necessity of having at a minimum a federally certified engineer and a federally certified conductor on trains. These employees support each other’s decision-making process. They work together to combat fatigue, especially in the real-world of train crews defined by mandated long shifts and unpredictable work schedules. They support safe operations in the event of emergencies or if one of the crew members becomes incapacitated, a fact that is also recognized by the Federal Aviation Administration as it prohibits cockpit crews of fewer than two pilots.

Conveniently, the railroads also fail to mention what happened three years ago in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic. A runaway train carrying 72 cars of crude oil killed 47 people and leveled most of the town. This train was under the control of a single crew member who failed to properly secure the train (because he lacked a co-crew member to assist and support him) ending in a fiery and deadly crash.

The industry’s assertion that mandates to implement Positive Train Control (PTC) technology in the rail industry are somehow in conflict with the FRA’s crew size rule is absurd. In case facts matter, PTC is simply one more redundant safety tool in rail operations that requires a great deal of train crew interaction in order for it to work. In fact, a fully operational PTC system puts more demands on the attention of the crew because of the distractions it causes. While advancement in transportation technology can provide essential safety support and save lives, it is not, and never will be, a replacement for highly trained, experienced and adequately staffed crews.

By the way, the public has spoken loudly on the subject. In states across America, both red and blue, an overwhelming majority of Americans strongly support a two-person train crew standard. The numbers are consistently strong cross all political and ideological lines with up to 91 percent of Democrats and 82 percent of Republicans favoring federal action to bar one-person train operations.

The safety arguments support a two-person crew standard. The public supports a two-person crew standard. Now it is time for our government to bar most one-person train operations.

Previsich is president of SMART Transportation Division and Wytkind is president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO.