New York (CNN) The country’s major freight railways have long desired to have only one crew member, a single engineer, in the cab of their locomotives. And that desire hasn’t changed despite the Feb. 3 train derailment in southern Norfolk that released toxic chemicals into the air, water and soil of East Palestine, Ohio, which is still being cleaned up.
But that accident may well have ended the railroad’s chances of achieving that one-man crew goal.
Rail safety legislation introduced in Congress on Wednesday with bipartisan support would include a ban on one-person crews. There is no such existing law or federal regulation that requires both an engineer and a conductor to be on a train. Instead, it is only jobs with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and the transportation division of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, Transportation (SMART-TD) union, which represents conductors, that require at least one member of each union in locomotive cab.
The Association of American Railroads confirmed that its position in favor of one-man crews has not changed. She believes it will be more efficient, and just as safe, for engineers to respond to train problems by driving along the tracks in trucks rather than in the cab of a locomotive.
“The position on crew size has not changed. The railroads have been clear that they support evidence-based policies that address the cause of this accident and enhance safety,” an AAR statement said. “As we continue to consider this bill, it is clear that it includes many of the same items on the AAR wish list, and others have clearly stated that it would not prevent a similar accident in the future, as the rule of arbitrary crew size. Railways looks forward to working with all stakeholders to meaningfully advance real solutions.”
Union Pacific said opposition to the two-person crew mandate doesn’t mean the railroads don’t care about safety.
“No data shows that a two-person crew confined to one cabin is safer, and train crew size should continue to be determined through collective bargaining,” a statement from UP said. “The proposed legislation limits our ability to compete in a business landscape where technology is rapidly changing the transportation industry.”
The other major freight railroads — Norfolk Southern, CSX, Burlington Northern Santa Fe — did not respond to questions about the legislation. But AAR is the trade group lobbying on their behalf.
The AAR statement did not address the question of whether that rule is now more likely to pass. But Jeremy Ferguson, president of SMART-TD, said this accident has completely changed the chances of writing the two-man crew requirement into US law.
“Absolutely,” he said when asked in an interview with CNN Business? if he thinks the provision will now pass. “When an incident like this happens, it brings to light all the issues, how insecure the rail industry really is. I didn’t think we had a chance before this. The railroads and AAR do a very good job of lobbying in DC. So that it’s generally hard to get people to vote for something like that. But sometimes it takes a disaster to drive home the point. Every time you turn on the TV, there’s still a problem. It won’t go away.”
Senators, Democrats and Republicans, sponsoring the rail safety bill say they hope there is now bipartisan support to change the law.
“Railroad lobbyists have fought for years to protect their profits at the expense of communities like East Palestine,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio. “These joint bipartisan safety measures will finally hold the big rail companies accountable, make our railroads and the cities along them safer, and prevent future tragedies so no community has to suffer again like East Palestine.”
“Through this legislation, Congress has a real opportunity to ensure that what happened in East Palestine will never happen again,” said JD Vance, Republican of Ohio, who is a co-sponsor. “We owe every American the peace of mind that their community is protected from a disaster of this type.”
If the law is changed because of the East Palestine derailment, it will not be the first disaster to change the rules and laws governing trains. In 2013, a runaway Canadian freight train carrying oil tankers crashed in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, causing a massive fire that killed 47 people and destroyed 40 buildings in the town. Canada responded by changing its law to require two-person crews on trains carrying hazardous materials.
But calls to change the law in the United States because of that accident fell on deaf ears.
Risk of derailment by one-man crews
The fact that there were three employees on the train that derailed in East Palestine – an engineer, a conductor and a trainee – did not prevent this accident from happening.
The National Transportation Safety Board’s initial finding of the disaster was that a fire first started when a rail car carrying plastic pellets was heated by a hot axle.
After the fire started, the train passed three trackside detectors aimed at determining if there is an overheating problem. But the first two didn’t signal a problem, even though the fire raised the temperature to more than 100 degrees. The detectors are designed not to alert the crew until there is a 200 degree rise in the detected temperature. Finally, the third detector recorded a temperature rise of more than 250 degrees, triggering an alarm in the locomotive cabin.
The NTSB said the engineer immediately responded to the alarm by applying the brakes in an attempt to stop the train, but a wheel bearing on the car that was on fire failed before he could stop the train, causing the derailment.
Ferguson said that while the crew could not prevent this derailment, there are an untold number of times that they detect a problem and prevent a derailment. He said not having the conductor on the train would miss many of those problems and cause many more derailments.
“When a detector goes off, you stop the train and the conductor can walk back and check if there’s an overheated axle and make an immediate decision,” Ferguson said. An engineer is not allowed to leave the locomotive, even if it is stopped. Only the dispatcher can check to see what the problems are that caused an alarm.
But if the conductor is driving a truck, instead of riding in the locomotive cab, it may be an hour or more before the conductor gets there and the axle may have cooled down. At that point, the conductor may have to get the train back on track, according to Ferguson, although the original problem of the heat detector tripping — a damaged shaft or bearing — is still a problem that can quickly cause a trip. from the rails.
“So having a guy wandering into the truck can cause a derailment,” Ferguson said.
Other potential safety issues from one-man crews
Beyond problems of this kind, having a second person in the cabin can provide greater attention to detail during long train journeys.
“You have two sets of ears and two sets of eyes. It always helps,” Ferguson said.
And also helps in case of medical emergency. In January, a CSX engineer suffered a heart attack while bringing a freight train to Savannah, Georgia, according to the engineers’ union. The conductor was able to tell he was in distress, give him an aspirin and call ahead for an ambulance to meet him at the rail yard.
The engineer needed emergency bypass surgery but survived the heart attack.
“It happens more often than people realize,” Ferguson said. “It’s not necessarily always a heart attack. But having two people up there always pays dividends for the crew members themselves.”
CSX did not have an immediate comment on the incident.
The importance of the employment contract
The fact that current labor contracts call for two crew members is of little consolation to the engineers and conductors’ unions.
They point out that under the Railroad Labor Act, they can have a contract contested by some or all railroad unions imposed by Congress, as happened last December. While this current contract retained the provision for two-man crews, that will not necessarily be the case in all future contracts, even if unions continue to make the issue a priority.
Congress generally approves what is recommended by a panel appointed by the president to propose a deal that hopefully both labor and management can accept. But there may be one or two provisions that are deal-breakers for unions, such as allowing one-man crews.
“Given the wrong president, we could lose this in a hurry,” Ferguson said.
The Federal Railroad Administration is also considering a rule that would require two-person crews. But Ferguson said getting the requirement written into law would be better than a simple regulation. An FRA regulation may be easier to change in a new administration than to get a change in the law.
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