A significant victory for public and workplace safety occurred on Sept. 10, 2014, when the lead union representing freight railroad conductors and ground crew members rejected a proposed revised work agreement with Burlington Northern Santa Fe to use one-person crews on more than half of the company’s trains.
BNSF had been offering extra pay and more-flexible scheduling for compensated rest periods in return for operating most of its trains with a single engineer on open track equipped with positive train control technology. Increased use of single-operator remote systems would also have been implemented in BNSF rail yards.
Representatives from the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) declined to sign off the plan on the grounds that reducing crews raised the risks for accidents, injuries and deaths.SMART was previously known as the UTU, or United Transportation Union.
As an attorney who has spent decades representing railroad employees hurt on the job, I applaud SMART’s stance. For each operator taken of a moving train, the odds of a crash, missed switch, ignored signal and inadequate response to an emergency situation increase.
“When you have two people in the locomotive, you have two sets of eyes to look at things, to look at the track, see what they are doing, what’s up ahead,” a rail safety expert explained to an Ohio television station investigating the possibility of one-person crews for CSX and Norfolk Southern trains. “What if you only have one person? Now you’ve only got one set of eyes. You’ve only got one brain. And to me the safety [just diminishes] … and the only reason they would do that is to save money.”
Multiple crew members can provide rest periods for colleagues on long runs, share responsibilities for making gauge and status checks, combine knowledge and expertise, and contribute exponentially to onsite response when derailments, crashes, fires and explosions occur. BNSF tried to buy itself some coverage by specifying that oil and chemical trains would continue operating with at least two-person crews, but SMART and several national lawmakers recognize that this should be minimal crewing for all trains.
For my own part, I have to question BNSF’s commitment to anything other than reducing its operating costs by cutting crew numbers. For instance, the rail corporation has been among the leaders in fighting a longstanding federal mandate to implement PTC. That opposition rests almost entirely on complaints over the expense, but companies have also questioned the effectiveness and feasibility of remote train braking systems. Is it possible that BNSF executive calculated that a savings from sacrificing the safety afforded by having more people aboard trains is worth now pursuing a technology they so recently claimed was unreliable?