The country’s major freight railways have long wanted to have only one crew member, a lone engineer, in the cab of their locomotives. And that desire has not changed despite the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train on February 3 that released toxic chemicals into the air, water and soil of East Palestine, Ohio, which is still ongoing. of cleaning.
But that accident may very well have ended the railroad’s chances of getting that one-person 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 federal law or regulation requiring an engineer and a conductor to be on board a train. Instead, it’s only labor agreements with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and the Transportation Division of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, Transportation (SMART-TD) union, which represents drivers, that require at least one member of each union in the cab of the locomotive.
The Association of American Railroads has confirmed that its position in favor of one-person crews has not changed. He thinks it will be more efficient and just as safe for engineers to react to train problems by driving along the tracks in trucks rather than in the locomotive cab.
“The position on crew size has not changed. The railways have made it clear that they support evidence-based policies that address the cause of this accident and improve safety,” said “As we continue to review this bill, it is clear that it includes many of the same wish list items that AAR and others have clearly stated would prevent not a similar accident in the future, such as the arbitrary crew size rule. The railways look forward to working with all stakeholders to meaningfully advance real solutions.
Union Pacific said opposing a two-person crew mandate doesn’t mean the railroads don’t care about safety.
“There is no data showing that a two-person crew confined to a taxi is safer, and train crew size should continue to be determined by collective bargaining,” the UP said. “The proposed legislation limits our ability to compete in a business landscape where technology is rapidly changing the transportation industry.”
CSX also said it believes the decision on crew size should be decided through collective bargaining, not legislation, but said it is not currently pursuing a change in crew size. of the crew. Negotiations between the railroads and unions are not expected to resume until 2024, and the railroads have historically negotiated agreements that apply across the industry. The other two major freight railways – Norfolk Southern and Burlington Northern Santa Fe – did not respond to questions about the legislation. But the AAR is the trade group lobbying on their behalf.
The AAR statement did not address whether this rule is now more likely to pass. But Jeremy Ferguson, president of SMART-TD, said the crash completely changed the chances of the two-person crew requirement being enshrined in US law.
“Absolutely,” he said when asked in an interview with CNN Business if he thought the provision would now pass. “When an incident like this happens, it highlights all the issues, how dangerous the rail industry really is. I didn’t think we had a chance before that. The railroads and the AAR do a very good job of lobbying DC. So it’s usually hard to get people to vote for something like this rule. But sometimes it takes a disaster to get the point across. Every time you turn on the TV there is always a problem. It’s not going to go away.
Senators, Democrats and Republicans, who are sponsoring the rail safety bill, say they hope there is now bipartisan support to change the law.
“Railway lobbyists have fought for years to protect their profits at the expense of communities like eastern Palestine,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio. “These common-sense, bipartisan safety measures will finally hold major railroads to account, make our railroads and the towns along them safer, and prevent future tragedies, so that no community will again have to suffer like eastern Palestine.”
“Through this legislation, Congress has a real opportunity to ensure that what happened in eastern Palestine will never happen again,” said Sen. JD Vance, the Republican from Ohio who is co-sponsor. “We owe every American the peace of mind that their community is protected from a disaster like this.”
If the law is changed due to the Eastern Palestine derailment, it will not be the first disaster that changes the rules and laws governing trains. In 2013, a runaway Canadian freight train carrying oil tank cars crashed in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, sparking 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 this accident have fallen on deaf ears.
The fact that there were three employees on the derailed train in eastern Palestine – an engineer, a driver and a trainee – did not prevent this accident from happening.
The National Transportation Safety Board’s first conclusion about the disaster was that a fire originally started when a railcar carrying plastic pellets was heated by a hot axle.
After the fire started, the train passed three detectors on the ground intended to determine if there was a problem causing overheating. But the first two reported no problems, even as the fire sent the temperature up over 100 degrees. The detectors are designed not to alert the crew until there is a 200 degree increase in sensed temperature. Finally, the third detector registers a temperature rise of more than 250 degrees, triggering an alarm in the locomotive cab.
The NTSB said the engineer responded to the alarm immediately by applying the brakes in an attempt to stop the train, but the burning car’s wheel bearing failed before he could stop the train. train, causing the derailment.
Ferguson said that while the crew couldn’t prevent this derailment from happening, there are countless times when they detect a problem and prevent a derailment. He said not having the conductor on the train would miss many of these issues and cause many more derailments.
“When a detector goes off, you stop the train and the driver can go back and check for an overheated axle and make an immediate decision,” Ferguson said. An engineer is not allowed to exit the locomotive, even if it is stationary. Only the conductor can verify if these are the issues that triggered an alarm.
But if the conductor is traveling in a truck rather than the locomotive cab, it may be an hour or more before he arrives, and the axle may have cooled. At this point, the conductor may have to send the train back on its way, according to Ferguson, although the initial problem of triggering the heat detector – a faulty axle or bearing – is still a problem that could quickly cause a derailment.
“So having a guy walking around in the truck can cause a derailment,” Ferguson said.
Beyond issues like this, having a second person in the cabin may just offer greater attention to detail on long train journeys.
“You have two pairs of ears and two pairs of eyes. It always helps,” Ferguson said.
And it also helps in medical emergencies. 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 recognize he was in distress, give him an aspirin, and call ahead for an ambulance to meet him in the marshalling 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 confirmed the incident with one of its engineers having suffered a heart attack in January.
“We salute the heroic actions of all CSX employees who provide assistance during any medical emergency,” the CSX statement said.
The fact that current employment contracts require two crew members is hardly reassuring for the unions of engineers and conductors.
They point out that under the Railway Labor Act they can have a contract that some or all of the railroad unions oppose imposed on them by Congress, as happened last December. While this current contract maintained the two-person crew provision, this will not necessarily be the case in all future contracts, even if the unions continue to make the issue a priority.
Congress typically enacts what is recommended by a panel appointed by the president to come up with a deal that hopefully workers and management can accept. But it might have one or two provisions that are deal breakers for unions, like allowing one-person crews.
“Given the wrong president, we could lose this quickly,” Ferguson said.
The Federal Railroad Administration is also considering a rule that would require two-person crews. But Ferguson said enshrining the requirement in law would be better than just a regulation. A FRA regulation might be easier to change in a new administration than to change the law.