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Robot locomotives will roam three freight yard rails

(The following article by Fred Leeson was published by the Oregonian on June 6.)

PORTLAND, Ore. -- People accustomed to waving at a railroad engineer may be in for a surprise soon in Portland. Chances are the locomotive won't have anyone on board.

Union Pacific plans to start using remote-controlled locomotives in mid-June at three Portland freight yards. Workers wearing electronic gadgetry strapped to their belts will be able to start, stop and control the speed of a diesel engine up to a mile away from the signaling device.

The rail yards where the remote-control devices will be used are the Barnes and Albina yards in North Portland and Brooklyn yard in Southeast Portland.

Remote control heralds a new era for railroading in which some observers think satellite and computer technology might someday remove the human hand from almost all locomotives. But opponents of unstaffed trains contend that the elimination of human supervision could result in chemical spills and accidental deaths, especially as railroads bring the technology to urban centers.

"The issue is health and safety," said Ross Lehmann, local chairman of Division 236 of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers in Portland. The changes also could reduce the union's membership.

Lehmann said railroads carry the bulk of the nation's hazardous materials, from nuclear waste to toxic chemicals and potentially explosive fertilizers. He said major railroads and the Federal Railroad Administration are plunging ahead with remote control technology without adequate safety tests.

But proponents of remote control contend that safety is one of the reasons the railroad administration allowed its use in railroad yards and industrial spurs. Engineers must still run "point to point" trains between cities.

John Bromley, a spokesman at Union Pacific headquarters in Omaha, Neb.,, said accidents are down about 30 percent at yards using the remote control devices.

The Canadian National railroad, which pioneered the technology in the 1990s, claimed a 50 percent drop in rail yard accidents in a report sent to U.S. railroad officials in 2000.

Lehmann questions the veracity of the Canadian figures, since the Canadian National spun off a company that is a primary supplier of the remote control belt packs. He also said U.S. railroads have leeway in deciding what accidents to report, and he said management pressure could influence what reports are filed.

Bromley said he wasn't surprised that the engineers union questions the railroad's statistics. He said the union has mounted "a vigorous campaign to discredit it" since the railroad adopted the devices last year.

Claudia Howells, rail section manager for the Oregon Department of Transportation, said state and federal inspectors will be watching safety results closely.

"Rail yards are always dangerous places," she said. "I don't think we have enough
experience yet" to draw conclusions about safety of remote control, Howells said.

Union Pacific began using remote control devices in April 2002. The company's large yard at Hinkle in Northeast Oregon was one of the first, and it has not been error-free. In late May, a worker wearing a remote control device fell beneath a train, losing an arm.

Bromley said no accidents at Hinkle have been attributed to the remote control equipment, but rather to human or mechanical errors. He said the incident leading to the amputation was puzzling because the worker was not running the locomotive at the time, and had been alerted that a train was coming his direction.

"Whether an engineer in the head engine would have seen him or been able to stop in time, we don't know," Bromley said.

Belt packs used by Union Pacific are designed to stop a locomotive if the belt pack is tilted more than 45 degrees from vertical. Bromley said the locomotive stopped when the Hinkle worker fell, even though the train was controlled by another worker's remote control device.

All sides agree that the remote control operations will save the railroad money.

Bromley said the remote control devices allow the same person to operate track switches in freight yards and to control locomotives. "It helps us improve the productivity of our work force," he said.

As a result of recent changes in railroad retirement plans, Bromley said many locomotive engineers are retiring earlier. He said using remote controlled locomotives in rail yards frees up engineers for "through" trains, without making additional hires.

"So far, it has been a way for railroads to become more productive," said the department of transportation's Howells. "If they can't become more productive, they might not survive."

Local governments have no control over railroad operations, which are regulated by the federal railroad agency. However, the engineers union has persuaded more than two dozen cities and counties to pass resolutions asking for remote controlled operations to end until safety issues are resolved.

A similar resolution is expected to be presented to the Portland City Council. The union has been meeting with some neighborhood associations to try building public support. The Kenton Neighborhood Association board in North Portland has written Mayor Vera Katz expressing its concerns about remote control safety.

Friday, June 6, 2003

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