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Remote-operated trains sparking safety dispute

(The following article by Bonna de la Cruz appeared on the Tennessean website on September 2.)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Some trains in Tennessee are being run by remote control in rail yards and sometimes cross neighboring roads, which is a growing concern for railroad safety advocates.

The issue has caught the attention of Tennessee Citizen Action, a consumer watchdog group that lobbies on Capitol Hill, and some state lawmakers, who have seen presentations on how technology is replacing locomotive engineers.

Mike Papula of Estill Springs, Tenn., a citizen member of a newly revived Tennessee Department of Transportation task force on rail-crossing safety, said he plans to bring up the issue at upcoming meetings.

The new technology, used to sort cars to different tracks, enables a switchman on the ground to control the trains, with no engineer at the controls. Mike McCready of Dickson, a spokesman for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers in Tennessee, said eventually it could replace a lot of engineers on regular runs.

But rail carrier CSX Transportation and the United Transportation Union, a competing union whose members include switchmen, said remotely directing trains has increased safety. Train accidents were reduced by more than 60% with remote-controlled engines in CSX yards, they said.

They said the engineer group's push to limit remote controls raised ''false safety issues,'' and they chalked it up to a recent labor dispute.

CSX uses the remote controls in 60 locations nationwide, including yards in Nashville and Erwin, Tenn., CSX spokesman David Hall said.

McCready likened the devices to a joystick-controlled toy car from Radio Shack ? but on a larger scale.

''He moves forward and backward, hits a button to blow the horns and ring the bell, and presses a button to put on the brake,'' McCready said. ''But there's no one watching what's in front.''

Such unmanned engines have been used in Tennessee for nearly two years.

''I'm not ready to ban them, but if a train goes through a crossing remotely controlled, that is a huge issue to public safety,'' said state Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville, who is friendly to the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers' position.

John Rutherford of Tennessee Citizen Action said, ''It's scary to think a train is crossing a road and no one is out front watching.''

But CSX's Hall said that because remote-controlled locomotives are limited to travel under 15 mph, they can be safer through a public crossing. Often, the operator will walk alongside the train through a crossing, or a flagman will stop traffic, he said.

McCready shrugs off claims that his agenda is driven by a labor dispute, saying his chief concern is safety.

Earlier this year an arbitrator ruled in favor of the United Transportation Union after the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers sued for its members to have the right to operate remote-controlled locomotives.

At Nashville's Radnor Yard, CSX eliminated 19 positions as it switched over to unmanned engines, but no engineer lost a job, Hall said. They were transferred to other locations, he said.

Often rail yards, such as those in Chattanooga and Memphis, extend into city neighborhoods.

McCready maintains that remote-controlled locomotives were banned in Jackson after rail customers complained about them.

Hall said that's not true. The terrain was too hilly in that area, he said, but CSX plans to give it another shot in another part of Jackson.

Under the conventional system, at least two railroad employees on the ground direct a locomotive engineer when they want to switch tracks or change rail cars.

With a remote control, one person does the job ? and it's safer, said Jerry Anderton, spokesman for the United Transportation Union in Tennessee.

''Quite a few of our accidents occur when there is miscommunication between the engineer and the person at the tracks,'' Anderton said. ''Many times a person gets caught between cars.''

Tennessee law requires every railroad company to ''keep the engineer, fireman or some other person upon the locomotive, always up on the lookout ahead.'' But federal law exempts switching operations from such guidelines, Hall said.

Train engineers are required to undergo six months of training to be certified by the Federal Railroad Administration, while remote operators take 10 days of training, McCready said.

Tuesday, September 2, 2003

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