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Two-Person Train Crews Are Essential for Public Safety

By Admin

December 21, 2022


The Honorable Amitabha (Amit) Bose
Federal Railroad Administration
1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE
Washington, DC 20590

              RE: Train Crew Size Safety Requirements
              Docket No. FRA-2021-0032

Dear Administrator Bose:

On behalf of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO (TTD), I am pleased to respond to the Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) proposed rule regarding Train Crew Size Safety Requirements. These requirements are necessary to ensure the safety and efficient operation of the U.S. freight and passenger railroad systems, the millions of Americans who rely on these systems every day, and the employees who work on these systems. TTD consists of 37 affiliated unions representing the totality of rail labor, including both passenger and freight rail workers, and specifically, the engineers and conductors that drive and operate freight and passenger trains who will be most impacted by this proposed rule.

In addition to our own comments, TTD endorses the comments and testimony filed by our affiliates: the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers – Transportation Division (SMART-TD), the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), the American Train Dispatchers Association (ATDA), and the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF).

This Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) requiring two-person crews on most freight and passenger trains is fundamentally necessary to ensure the safe operation of our freight rail and passenger systems and we applaud FRA’s leadership in releasing this NPRM. Many of the provisions included in the NPRM represent fundamental safeguards that must be enforced to ensure that our nation’s rail system operates at minimum standards that workers and the public demand. At the same time, there are areas of the rule that could be strengthened to ensure that the intent of the proposed rule is truly fulfilled and potential weaknesses are fully addressed.

Below, TTD outlines sections of the rule that are vital and that must not be eliminated or weakened, such as the requirement that railroads undergo a risk assessment and public comment process before being able to operate with less than two-person crews; that legacy one-person train operations need to seek special approval from FRA to continue operating; or the requirement that all trains carrying hazardous materials, as defined by the proposed rule, be operated by two crewmembers on the train. TTD also outlines areas that must be strengthened or changed, such as the ability to use an alternative risk assessment process in lieu of the proposed risk assessment or the lack of a requirement that the second crewmember be certified as a conductor. TTD urges FRA to finalize the strongest rule possible that keeps all of the fundamental tenets of the rule while addressing the areas mentioned in these comments.

I. Need & Context For Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM)

TTD believes that it is important to highlight the context in which this Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) has been proposed. That context only heightens the need for FRA to finalize swiftly the strongest possible rule.

While FRA has been considering action on crew size for almost 10 years now, trends from the last few years in the rail industry have shined a clear spotlight on the need for strong, swift action by FRA. Since 2015, the Class I freight railroads have introduced a new operating model known as Precision Scheduled Railroading, or PSR. As part of its organizational mission, TTD interacts with many different industries and companies. The railroads’ actions through PSR are some of the most reckless and dangerous TTD has seen in recent history.

The Precision Scheduled Railroading model exists not to improve service to customers or increase the efficiency of the industry, but rather, to squeeze every last nickel and dime out of the industry. It exclusively serves the short-term benefit of the railroads’ shareholders at the expense not just of rail workers, but also of the very customers the companies are supposed to be serving. The Class I railroads proudly tout that the PSR model has allowed them to achieve record profits – more than $146 billion since 2015. But they refuse to acknowledge that this comes at the cost of unsafe working conditions for rail workers and the communities through which they operate, and detrimental service for rail shippers, and ultimately, their consumers. In nominal terms, these profits are even more than what the railroads made at the height of their robber baron days in the 19th century. To achieve these profits for their shareholders’ benefit, this business model has stripped railroads of their human and physical capital. Since 2015, these railroads have laid off 45,000 workers, which is the equivalent of 30% of the nation’s total freight rail workforce.

Railroads want us to believe these workers are redundant, but it has become clear that the massive reductions in workforce are simply about cutting costs for the sake of profit, even if those cuts result in the degradation of safety and service as the cuts certainly have. The railroads say they care about safety, but all evidence clearly points to the fact that those claims are hollow rhetoric.

Reports from our affiliates’ and news media stories reflect a freight rail industry that is in a state of crisis because of the railroads’ own decision making. The railroad workers who remain after the Class I railroads cut 45,000 of their colleagues have been forced to do more with less, and are faced with discipline or dismissal if they are unable to comply. The consequences of these choices are no longer hypothetical. Rather than maintaining appropriate staffing levels, carriers are mandating overtime for workers who are already stretched thin or creating schedules that make it impossible for workers to actually take time off. Carriers are also penalizing workers who refuse to come to work when they are sick because carriers do not have enough staff to cover when someone is sick and cannot show up for work. All of these policies are backed by draconian attendance policies that the carriers have unilaterally implemented that put someone’s job at risk if they take any unexcused absences. In an industry where fatigue is a known and constant risk factor, exposing employees to additional fatigue by asking them to work longer, faster or perform multiple jobs, especially while sick, is a proven recipe for disaster.

Carriers are also compensating for reduced staffing by changing operating practices that are making the rail system less safe. For example, railroads are now running much longer trains, upwards of five miles in some parts of the country to compensate for not having enough train crews. They are also requiring remaining employees to perform work outside of their craft, in addition to fulfilling their regular duties. In practice, that means that railroad workers are being forced to do safety-critical tasks that they are not experienced in, and do not have proper training and qualification to perform. Furthermore, carriers are cutting back on the amount of training that a new employee receives before being expected to do the job by themselves all because they have cut so much staff. Norfolk Southern, for example, has cut the amount of new training for conductors from 16 weeks to 6-8 weeks. That is putting inexperienced workers at risk of severe injury or death.

All of these decisions and practices by the Class I railroads has led to a railroad system that is getting progressively less safe. The FRA’s own safety data shows that since 2009, the number of railroad accidents and incidents reported to FRA has not meaningfully declined. Derailments, fatalities, and collisions all increased in the years leading up to the pandemic, with fatalities rising from 640 to 732 between 2017 and 2019 alone. Total accidents/incidents rose from 9,215 in 2012 to 9,744 in 2019, reversing a decades-long decline. Trespasser deaths not on highway-rail crossings rose from 335 in 2012 to 477 in 2019. Given the notorious pressure that railroads put on their workers to prevent them from reporting incidents to the FRA, TTD suspects that these accidents/incidents are severely undercounted, especially during the pandemic when safety risks have been much higher, and normal government functions – including safety inspections – were curtailed. In other words, there is no strong evidence that safety outcomes have improved in the previous two years and any claims to this effect should be viewed with a high degree of skepticism. The trends from the last decade instead point to a worsening safety situation that is reaching a crisis point.

Click here to read TTD’s comment filing in its entirety.