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One-man train crew plan raises train fears

(The following report by Judy L. Thomas appeared on The Kansas City Star website on June 26.)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Freight trains hauling thousands of tons of toxic materials — including chlorine, ammonia and radioactive waste — are crisscrossing the United States every day, rolling past homes, schools and densely populated areas.

But now, railroad companies want to reduce the size of the crews that control those trains from two or three people to as few as one person.

Critics who point to the deadly bombings of passenger trains in London and Madrid, Spain, call the lone crewman proposal “a prescription for disaster,” arguing that not enough has been done since Sept. 11, 2001, to safeguard the nation’s rail system from terrorist attacks.

“Even one tank car of chlorine, if it derails and opens, has the potential of killing hundreds of people through a deadly cloud,” said Frank Wilner, a spokesman for the United Transportation Union, which represents conductors who probably would lose their jobs.

“Even one tank car of chlorine, if it derails and opens, has the potential of killing hundreds of people through a deadly cloud,” said Frank Wilner, a spokesman for the United Transportation Union, which represents conductors who probably would lose their jobs.

Rail officials, however, counter that the sophisticated satellite technology behind their proposal — called Positive Train Control — would actually improve rail safety, as well as increase profitability in their booming $42 billion a year industry.

“One person with the technology is safer than two people without the technology,” said Peggy Wilhide, a spokeswoman for the Association of American Railroads.

Wilhide said that railroads want the flexibility to decide how many people are in the locomotive depending on the route, the length of the trip and what they are hauling. “So it isn’t automatically one person in every cab,” she said.

But engineers and conductors argue that one person is not enough if the train encounters mechanical problems and the lone crew member must check them out, leaving the engine idling and the controls unattended.

The debate hits close to home because Kansas City is the second-largest rail hub in the country, with more than 300 trains coming and going daily — many of them carrying deadly chemicals.

More than 64 percent of the chemicals that are toxic when inhaled are currently transported by rail, Kip Hawley, assistant secretary of the Homeland Security Department, told a congressional committee in October. Each tank car carries an average of 90 tons of chlorine or 30,000 gallons of anhydrous ammonia.

The big fear is that terrorists could take over a train and turn those tankers into weapons of mass destruction. A terrorist attack on just one chlorine car passing through Washington, D.C., could kill 100,000 in just 20 minutes, a scientist for the Naval Research Laboratory told officials in 2004.

Such concerns aren’t unfounded. Between 1998 and 2003, trains, depots, ticket stations and rail bridges were the targets of about 180 terrorist attacks worldwide, according to the Rand Corp., a consulting firm that advises U.S. government agencies. Those attacks resulted in more than 400 deaths and thousands of injuries.

Indeed, terrorists may focus even more attention on rail targets. A new book excerpted last week in Time magazine describes an alleged plot by al-Qaida terrorists in 2003 to kill thousands of commuters by releasing cyanide gas in New York subways.

Last July, a series of suicide bombings on three commuter trains and a bus in London killed 56 people and injured 700. Bombings on the rail system in Madrid killed 192 and injured more than 2,000 in March 2004.

But it’s not just terrorists who are a concern to critics of the single-person crew proposal. Derailments and train wrecks can release toxic chemicals, as well.

Last year in the United States, 36 accidents forced the evacuations of 7,636 people, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. Chlorine gas released in a derailment in Graniteville, S.C., killed nine people, injured hundreds and forced thousands to evacuate.

“It’s scary,” said Eric Bunch, a Kansas City-area train engineer. “Everybody’s concerned about safety, especially with the terrorism issue. … With only one person on the train, it would make it that much easier for someone to overtake the engine. It would be the same as if they took away the co-pilot and you just had one guy flying the plane.”

Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said Positive Train Control systems could have prevented some of the fatal accidents that the board investigated during his tenure.

“So I think that it’s a road that certainly both union and management ought to explore,” Hall said.

But because trains are potential targets of terrorists, he added, when it comes to single-person crews, “You may want to have a different set of rules for trains that carry hazardous materials.”

The Transportation Security Administration, which is part of the Homeland Security Department, said the agency has no position on one-person crews or Positive Train Control.

“However, if the rail industry chooses to implement it, we don’t consider Positive Train Control a security risk,” said spokeswoman Carrie Harmon.

A contractual issue

The controversy over single-person crews surfaced in November 2004 in contract negotiations. Another round of talks is scheduled for Tuesday, but neither side expects any action on the single-person crew issue.

Rail company officials will not comment on the dispute. They refer questions to the Association of American Railroads, which represents North America’s major freight lines.

But railway officials are publicly touting their Positive Train Control technology under which a single-person crew would operate a train. Positive Train Control allows the train to run without a conductor.

Using the Global Positioning System-based technology, if a train is going too fast or is exceeding its approved area of travel and the engineer fails to respond to warnings, the system can automatically slow or stop the train. Railway officials contend that this would cut down on human error — the most common cause of train accidents — and reduce collisions and derailments.

They also say the new system could prevent someone from hijacking a train.

“With this system, if somebody were to get on, they wouldn’t be able to move the train,” said Patrick Hiatte, a spokesman for Fort Worth, Texas-based BNSF Railway, formerly the Burlington Northern Santa Fe. “If that train didn’t have authority, it wouldn’t move.”

Railroads are testing the system. Since October 2004, BNSF has operated a pilot program involving 50 trains traveling 135 miles between Beardstown and Centralia, Ill.

“We have run more than 1,700 trips,” Hiatte said. “So far, it has stopped every train that it was supposed to stop, and it has not stopped any train that it should not have stopped.”

Hiatte said BNSF already has asked the Federal Railroad Administration for permission to test its Electronic Train Management System on runs between Fort Worth to Arkansas City in south central Kansas. The company also has requested federal approval to use the technology throughout its network.

But union leaders argue that it is unknown whether the Positive Train Control system would improve rail safety or security, because it still is experimental.

“The technology that they’re proposing is not proven yet,” said John Bentley, a spokesman for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. “It’s so new that it’s not universal. Different railroads are trying out different systems, and those systems don’t communicate with each other.”

Earlier this year, union leaders said the railroad industry’s attempts to reduce crew size would jeopardize public safety.

“Trains operating through populated areas and carrying deadly hazmat and considered a target of terrorists should not be permitted to operate with only a single person aboard. Railroads transport deadly hazmat (hazardous materials) on tracks that are within blocks of Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Train tracks are located in the heart of major population centers …” union officials said.

They also pointed out that a single-person crew would be dangerous if:

— A train broke down and blocked a crossing. One person could not quickly disconnect the train to unblock a crossing if an emergency vehicle needed to pass through.

— An air hose broke in the back of the train. One person would not be able to get to it quickly.

— A train is involved in a grade crossing crash. One person would not be enough to handle such emergencies.

“Things go on in the operation of a railroad that aren’t even being considered,” said Rick Inclima, director of education and safety for a division of the Teamsters Rail Conference.

Inclima said that, for example, a crew member is required to walk the length of the train to check a problem. “If there’s only one person on the train, are you going to leave the running locomotive unattended while the one guy goes out and walks a train that might be a mile long?” he asked.

But the crew-reduction proposal is just the latest in a series of rail cutbacks in recent decades. Until the late 1970s, train crews regularly consisted of five people — an engineer, a conductor, a fireman and two brakemen. By the early 1980s, even cabooses started disappearing.

“So now we’re kind of at the next juncture,” said rail industry spokeswoman Wilhide. “And at this juncture, we’re looking at having more flexibility on our crew size — and in some instances, where it makes sense, to have one person in the locomotive.”

Wilhide insisted that the railroads would not take that next step until they were certain the technology was in place. She added, however, that “the technology could be ready to go very soon.”

Security questions

Surprisingly, when it comes to the size of train crews, there are no federal regulations.

“Train-crew size is done through negotiated contracts,” said Steven Kulm, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration.

But Kulm said that all the major railroads are working on Positive Train Control technology and that a decision by his agency on BNSF’s request to operate it systemwide may come later this summer. Both the Federal Railroad Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board support development of the technology.

Even without the new technology, industry officials insist the railways are secure. A recent Association of American Railroads document revealed that after Sept. 11, 2001, the industry worked with a team of former U.S. military and government experts to develop a comprehensive railroad security plan.

That plan established four alert levels and described actions designed to thwart terrorist threats to railroad personnel and facilities. It also increased employee training to ensure that railroad workers became “the eyes and ears of the railroad industry’s security.”

However, recent incidents suggest that it is not always that difficult to commandeer or derail a train:

— In October, a man used a makeshift bow and arrow to take over a freight train in Montclair, Calif. The would-be train robber boarded the Union Pacific train while it was stopped for a signal on its way from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles, then threatened the engineer and conductor.

— In March 2005, a train hauling chemicals derailed in Santa Fe Springs, Calif. Police arrested and later charged a 14-year-old boy in connection with causing the derailment.

Perhaps more disturbing was an FBI warning issued in 2002, which said the bureau had received information that terrorists might be planning attacks on U.S. railroads. Bureau officials said they had recovered al-Qaida photographs that showed railroad engines, cars and crossings.

A recent survey of thousands of railroad employees also found what unions called “a disturbing lack of security” in rail yards and along the nation’s 167,000 miles of track.

The survey, conducted in 2004 and 2005 by the Teamsters Rail Conference, found that freight trains carrying hazardous chemicals routinely sat unmanned. Trespassers often roam freely through rail yards and along the rights of way, and railroad police are rarely visible.

Moreover, the survey found, engineers often have no backup in an emergency and — other than a radio — there are no distress codes or signals to contact authorities in a crisis.

“In short, workers say, America’s rail lines appear one step shy of disaster,” the survey’s executive summary concluded.

Railroad workers maintain that warnings of potential attacks have largely been ignored. Eighty-four percent said they had not received any additional training on terrorism prevention and response in the past year. And 99 percent said they hadn’t received training on the monitoring of nuclear waste shipments.

“It’s not the rosy picture that the railroad industry portrays,” Bentley said. “A lot of our members have been given a brochure or a DVD to watch at home, but that’s not really intense training to prevent a terrorist from taking over your train.”

Industry officials dismissed the union’s survey, saying it lacked credibility. They predicted that it is just a matter of time before the single-person crew issue is resolved.

“If we’re going to have a 21st-century railroad, designed to handle the dramatic increase in freight that we’re going to have, we need new technology,” Wilhide said.

Monday, June 26, 2006

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