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The march to one-person crews continues …

While presenting to short line and regional railroad executives at Norfolk Southern’s recent short line marketing meeting in Norfolk, CEO James A. Squires said there are three things that have to happen before the rail industry can “expect” (strong word) one-person crews:

  • “First, the technology. The technology’s got to be there,” he said. Full implementation of PTC (Positive Train Control) would give NS that capability by the end of 2020.

  • Second, “regulations that are, if not conducive to one-man crew operations, at least which do not prohibit one-man crew operations … Moreover, FRA made it very clear … that they intend to preempt state laws governing crew consists. That should give us a powerful tool with which to seek rollback of state laws or proposed laws that seek to mandate two-man crews.” FRA’s decision to drop the rulemaking to mandate two-person train crews indicates that objective is achievable, Squires noted.

  • Third, collective bargaining agreements. With the technology and regulations in place, there will come a time, Squires said, when NS seeks to bargain on crew consist changes.

At this point in time, I believe Squires has made what could be considered to be a “logical” assessment of the facts and circumstances, but …

With respect to the technology, PTC:

  1. The PTC mandate only covers about 43% of main line trackage in the U.S.

  2. Merely having the technology in place does not, or at least should not, fully address this requirement.

Assuming that not all trackage owned or operated-over by NS, or any other railroad, will be PTC-equipped, one-person train crews should be limited to routes that are fully equipped and compliant—one would assume. This raises some important questions: What if PTC fails on a single train or, worse yet, on a whole corridor? Do all one-person train operations in the corridor come to a stop? Should that be left to a railroad to decide, or should there be regulations covering such situations?

Assuming, again, that once the technology is in place and deemed by the railroad to be fully operational, one would assume that the FRA would have to certify that all elements of the technology are fully functional, the design requirements are met and that the systems fulfill all safety requirements. Would it not be prudent to require a test period to determine if the technology functions as promised and fulfills all safety expectations and requirements?

With respect to regulations:

  1. Squires cites the decision by FRA to withdraw the two-person train crew rulemaking as opening the door for a transition to one-person train crews, from a regulatory perspective.

  2. Squires also states that FRA made it very clear that it intended to preempt state laws that require two-person train crews.

Clearly, the most immediate regulatory threat to rail industry efforts to transition to one-person train crews was the two-person-minimum NPRM. But let’s not forget that the clock is running on the current Administration in Washington, D.C. The next administration may have entirely different views and actions on this and many other issues that affect railroads.

With respect to FRA efforts to preempt states from making laws governing minimum size of train operating crews, rest assured labor is preparing to fight those battles, to the death. Under the National Uniformity and State Regulation provisions of the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970, one finds these provisions:

“[A] state is permitted to adopt additional or more stringent standards than the federal standards if the state rule does not create an undue burden on interstate commerce, is not incompatible with federal standards, and is necessary to eliminate or reduce local safety hazards.”

With respect to the “undo burden” provision, when I started railroading, Wisconsin still had a full-crew law that required a fireman on all trains operating in the state. While my home terminal was in the state, one of my away-from-home terminals was in Minnesota, and the other was in Illinois. Neither required trains to have firemen. I suppose the railroad could have had firemen get off and on at state lines, but they didn’t do that. We went though with the rest of the crew, even though those states did not require a fireman. The undo burden issue is far from settled.

With respect to the issue of federal standards, since there are no federal standards on crew-consist size, state laws cannot be “incompatible” with federal standards.

Finally, with respect to local safety hazards, what right does the FRA (the federal government) have to determine what constitutes a “local safety hazard”? That sounds like a fight labor and state governments would relish taking on.

With respect to the crew consist bargaining issue, as a veteran observer of the crew-consist bargaining wars on Burlington Northern in the 1980s and early 1990s, saying these bargaining efforts will be contentious, prejudiced and time-consuming is likely a gross understatement. The train operating craft unions overlap in their representation of locomotive engineers and conductors. As a result, they have demonstrated that this is an issue on which they are unified, and that they will stand together and fight the good fight. This will likely drag on for years to come.

To conclude: Yes, railroads might eventually prevail and win the crew consist wars, but it promises to be a long and bloody fight. In the end, railroads might discover that the consequences and costs associated with not having that conductor (second person) on their trains is a far greater burden than having them on board. Consider, long and hard, the public safety implications of one-man train crews.

A reminder to rail industry decision-makers. Safety technology is a wonderful thing—until it isn’t. Think Boeing 737 Max.

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