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Federal decision on rail staffing sends clear sign to state and federal lawmakers

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The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) recently ruled, that, when it comes to the number of crew members in the cab of a locomotive, there simply is no evidence to support the notion that two is better than one. The decision confirms that such a command-and-control policy would limit the evolution of freight railroads, which are innovating to meet growing freight demands.

Such definitive action sends a clear signal to federal and state lawmakers: stop pushing similar crew size legislation and leave such decisions where the belong – collective bargaining.

At issue are legislative proposals in some states and in Congress that would mandate a fundamental aspect of train operations – these proposals would require a minimum number of on-board freight rail crew members each train must deploy. The measures under consideration would require into perpetuity a crew of at least two crew members in the cab of a locomotive per freight train. Most mainline freight trains currently operate with two crew members, down from five crew members as more technologies have come online. 

Such a restriction on U.S. freight railroads is wrong headed for several reasons.

For starters, there simply is no evidence demonstrating that two-person crews are safer than one-person crews. Rail operators across the world, including in Europe for instance, use single-person crews. Amtrak and other passenger railroads, as well as many U.S. short line freight railroads, have long operated safely with only one person in the cab here in the United States. The safety record of these railroads is equal to two-person operations, as the FRA made clear in its important ruling last week.

Over time, as crew sizes have shrunk, incidents attributable to human error have also been reduced.

While the industry continues to strive towards a future with zero incidents and injuries, today’s railroads are amid their safest era ever – including in the areas of train accident rate and employee safety. Railroads maintain lower employee injury rates than most other major industries, including trucking, airlines, mining and manufacturing.

All the while, a new nationwide rail safety system is coming online. The industry has installed tens of thousands of miles of Positive Train Control (PTC) – an automated system that will stop a train before human-caused accidents occur.

Crew size mandates are problematic for other reasons too.

Such inflexible policy would have a deleterious effect across the railroad industry by putting it at a distinct disadvantage relative its competitors, such as the trucking industry, which is working toward autonomous and platooning truck fleets. To ensure optimal service performance that is competitive with other freight transportation modes, freight railroads need to be allowed to determine the appropriate model.

The fact is that crew size is and has always been a matter of collective bargaining. Labor and management have bargained over the complement of a train’s crew for over 100 years. As railroads adopted technologies such as diesel-electric engines and automatic air brakes – eliminating the need for positions such as firemen and brakemen –  at the time labor nevertheless claimed that any reduction in train crew staffing would pose serious safety risks. As the industry’s history demonstrates, those claims were wholly unfounded. Again, using the guise of safety, labor has now appealed to allies in Congress and state legislatures to effectively prohibit the issue from being further addressed through the processes of the Railway Labor Act. 

Those processes have consistently balanced the needs of employees with the operational and competitive needs of railroads and should continue to be allowed to address train crew staffing in the future. 

Railroads will not rush into making crew size changes and are committed to bargaining. As always, the industry is dedicated to applying procedures and technologies to maintain operations that are safe and appropriate to the locations they are operating. But for that to work, the issue of crew size must be left to the well-settled historical bargaining processes that have helped form the world’s safest freight rail system.

Jefferies is the president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads


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