Automation and budget-cutting have led many freight and passenger railroads across the United States to cut crew sizes. As a logical result of such staff reductions, many of the largest trains moving along the nation’s rails have only a single engineer in the locomotive—even those transporting oil and toxic chemicals. As recently as 20 years ago, a standard long-distance train crew consisted of an engineer, a fireman, a conductor and two brakemen.
Regulators and rail worker unions have raised alarms about train crew reductions for many years. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) responded in 2015 by drafting a rule mandating minimum crew sizes of two people for Class I railroads, a group that includes Amtrak, BNSF, CSX and Norfolk Southern. The rule was published for comment this past winter, and the FRA held a hearing on its provision in July 2016.
FRA experts and representatives of rail employees, such as the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, argued for larger train crews. They cited incidents like a conductor taking over for an incapacitated engineer aboard an out of control engine in North Dakota. The conductor’s actions prevented a major derailment and likely explosion.
Arguing against the two-crew person minimum, rail companies said, against actual evidence, that “no evidence” existed to prove that adding crew to one-person trains could prevent accidents, injuries, deaths and property damage. The corporations also claimed that putting more than one person on a train would impose unsupportable costs on their operations.
FRA analysts countered the cost complaint by noting that putting one more person in a locomotive would require a maximum expenditure of $27.7 million over 10 years. That is far below the estimated value of the workers’ lives expected to be saved and a tiny fraction of revenues for companies that regularly report annual earnings of several billion.
Having represented railroad employees injured in crashes and derailments for three decades, I know that placing more than one person in a locomotive adds an invaluable safety factor. Even with the (too slow) deployment of braking technology like positive train control, the role of a trained human in preventing tragedies cannot be overemphasized. Should an equipment failure occur or should an engineer suffer an unexpected injury or illness, having a conductor or other crew member present can make the difference between a disaster and a near-miss.