Back in 2008, there was a head-on collision between a Metrolink commuter train and a Union Pacific freight train near Chatsworth, California. Twenty-five people were killed, including an engineer, who was evidently texting at the time and may have missed a stop signal.
After this collision Congress mandated Positive Train Control. This system monitors trains by computer and satellite GPS. It will stop the train if the crew doesn’t brake or slow down correctly. Had it been in place in 2008, the commuter train would have stopped before crossing into the path of the freight train.
With this new collision-avoidance system, rail carriers have found yet another way to cut labor costs. They now want one-man crews on freight trains. Currently in the United States, trains operate with at least two crew members, one engineer and one conductor. Some trains are over 10,000 feet long and more than 15,000 tons. Engineers drive and take care of the engines but conductors do everything else.
Engineers and conductors are licensed by the Federal Railroad Administration and undergo continual re-training and testing. But many of them – and their families – oppose the idea of one-man crews. They consider it an unacceptable safety hazard, and one of the main factors in their opposition is the grueling fatigue that train crews have to deal with.
Train crews are usually on duty around the clock and may get only two or three hours’ notice to report for work, any time of day or night. They can be called to work again after only 10 hours off. Their shifts can be for up to 12 hours. Some of the duties of a conductor:
- hopping off the train to throw the switch that moves the train to another track
- adding or removing cars
- updating the list of cars that carry hazardous materials – crucial for first responders in case of a wreck
- problem solving if a mechanical problem stops the train
- conferring with the engineer about hazards, speed reductions, or crossings coming up
Opponents of one-man crews cite the case of a disaster that occurred in July of 2013. An unattended crude oil train broke loose and rolled down a hill, derailing in the middle of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, igniting fires and explosions that killed 47 people. A sole engineer had been in charge of the train.
Last month, thousands of railroad workers found out that their union officers had negotiated with one of the biggest freight carriers in the country to allow one-man crews. The union is SMART, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers (formerly the United Transportation Union), which represents conductors. The rail carrier is Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway (BNSF).
Currently a SMART agreement requires a minimum of one conductor and one engineer in the cab on Class I railroads. But that agreement will soon expire. Conductors could lose jobs if railroads implement engineer-only operation.The deal struck by the General Committee of SMART would have a designated master conductor working either from a fixed or mobile location other than the train. It would be the first time that a conductor is in charge of train operation.
The deal would boost the pay of conductors and other ground service workers, such as brakemen, switchmen, helpers, and yardmen. All these workers are eligible for promotion to conductor.
The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, which represents engineers, has clashed with SMART over the years. Many engineers’ jobs were eliminated several years ago when railroads introduced Remote Control Operation technology for railyards. As J.P. Wright and Ed Michael explain, inbound train cars can come to the yard to be received, separated, and regrouped into tracks so that outbound trains are built with cars all going to the same destination. A yard crew used to consist of engineer, brakeman, and conductor.
Now yard crews have been reduced to a lone conductor with a remote control device strapped to his or her body. He operates the engine’s throttle and brakes to move cars, uncouples cars, and throws switches, talking by radio to the yardmaster and incoming engineers.
At first BLET and UTU (representing conductors at the time) stood united against remote control, but an attempt to merge the two unions failed. The UTU broke ranks and agreed to remote control, eliminating engineers’ jobs.
SMART is now trying to hold on to conductors’ jobs since this new industry move toward engineer-only crews.
Rank and file members of SMART have to approve of the new deal, and a campaign is underway to get them to vote no on one-man crews. Both SMART and BLET are officially against one-man crews, but each union is willing to cut whichever deal benefits its members.
Railroad Workers United was organized to bring all workers in the industry together to oppose one-man crews, regardless of their craft or union affiliation.
As for the federal government, the National Transportation Safety Board has no objection to eliminating conductors on PTC-run trains. Amtrak, commuter railroads, and some smaller freight carriers already operate with lone engineers in the cab and haven’t found any reduction in train safety.