15,000 ton freight trains carrying hazardous materials across America using 1-person crews sound like a bad idea? We think so and fortunately so do the government’s chief rail safety regulators at the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).
The FRA announced that it will issue a proposed rule requiring two-person crews on crude oil trains, and establishing minimum crew size standards for most other freight and passenger rail operations. The stage is set for a rule that finally puts this issue to bed by establishing a broad two-person crew mandate.
As so often happens, action usually follows calamity. A horrendous accident last summer in Canada killed more than 40 people; that train used a single-person crew. The Canadian accident involved a runaway train carrying 72 cars of crude oil, whose explosion demolished the entire town of Lac-Megantic, only 20 miles from the U.S. border.
This probably explains why the public so clearly gets it. A recent poll on the train crew size question showed that 80 percent of Missourians don’t care for 1-person crews. Polls in other states testing the popularity of eliminating the second crew member had the same result: no thanks.
Why are two-person crews safer? As John Previsich, president of our affiliate, SMART – Transportation Division explains, the reasons go beyond the critical need for a second person to step in if a crew member is fatigued or incapacitated:
“It takes two skilled and qualified employees to perform a normal brake test, to separate a train at a highway-rail crossing, to receive and acknowledge mandatory directives while moving, to make routine pick up and set out of cars from the train, and also to act as a first responder for indicated defects in equipment, derailments, unexpected application of brakes, and highway-rail crossing collisions.”
After the Canadian disaster, the FRA’s safety advisory committee created three work groups to recommend proposals on the safe shipment of crude oil. Crew size was the subject of one of the groups, but it failed to reach consensus—predictably because of the long-standing attitude of resistance by the railroad industry to a 2-person crew mandate.
The industry’s attitude is hard to defend.
The argument goes, since much of the industry currently makes a standard practice of employing two-person crews, the mandate amounts to needless government regulation. But why would the industry fight a safety mandate that apparently mirrors its own operating practice? Answer: because the freight railroads don’t accept this standard and actually hope to run 1-person crews, not because I say so but because they say so.
In fact, the railroads have repeatedly tried to secure the right to use 1-person crews at the collective bargaining table and there’s little doubt we’ll see that movie again. Also, they’ve publicly admitted that when anti-collision technology known as Positive Train Control is fully implemented across the network they want the opportunity to reduce crew sizes.
New labor contracts or new technology won’t change the fact that a 15,000 ton train needs to be operated by two qualified crew members. Join our #2CrewTrains campaign.