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Two person crews are the safest

(BLET Editor’s Note: The following message from BLET National President Dennis R. Pierce has been excerpted from the Winter 2015 issue of the Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen Journal.)

INDEPENDENCE, Ohio, May 9 — For well more than half a century railroads have used locomotive and train control technology to eliminate operating craft jobs. Whether it was the post-World War II shift from steam to diesel, or the introduction of technology from the 1990s to present, railroads have used technology to eliminate crew members. Time and again operating craft unions were forced to mount lengthy and expensive struggles in defense of tens of thousands of members whose livelihoods were being threatened.

It should surprise no one that the industry is now eager to use Congressionally-mandated Positive Train Control (PTC) technology—a redundant safety system first recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board over 40 years ago—as a way to reduce operating crews to a single member. On March 15th, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) formally countered the carriers’ move by publishing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to require a minimum crew size of two persons, except in extremely limited circumstances.

The industry has seized on FRA’s acknowledgement that it cannot provide conclusive statistical data regarding whether one-person crews are generally safer or less safe than multiple-person crews, charging that it cannot be proven that two-person crews are safer. But, as FRA explained, the agency cannot provide such data because it does not currently collect data related to train crew size, nor do accident reports and investigations generally address the size of a crew.

While quantitative data of a statistically significant volume may not exist, there is ample qualitative data supporting the incorporation of current industry-wide crew size practice in federal rail safety regulations. FRA’s NPRM cited two prominent examples of how crew size can enhance—or diminish—safety.

In early July of 2013, the town of Lac-Mégantic in Quebec, Canada, was nearly reduced to rubble when a runaway, unattended 72-car crude oil tank train derailed and exploded, killing 47 and causing the evacuation of approximately 2,000 residents. Because the train had been brought to the vicinity of Lac-Mégantic by a single-person crew, it was necessary to secure the train on a steep grade several miles outside of town. Canada’s Transportation Safety Board concluded that a minimum of 17 and possibly as many as 26 hand brakes would have been needed to secure the train because of the grade; however, applying only nine handbrakes was sufficient to comply with the railroad’s operating rules.

If that train had a two-person crew, it could have been secured much closer to the town, on flat ground. This would have required cutting the train into several sections in order to avoid blocking road crossings, but the terrain and the additional handbrakes on each cut of cars would have prevented the sequence of events that led to the runaway, or at least vastly mitigated potential damage. This option was unavailable to the one-person crew, because it would have taken at least a two-person crew to cut the crossings.

Another example cited by FRA was the December 30, 2013 collision between a crude oil train and a derailed grain train in Casselton, North Dakota. The collision led to the release of nearly a half million gallons of crude, followed by explosions and fire, causing 1,500 residents to evacuate. In FRA’s own words, “the heroic actions of the grain train’s [three] crewmembers potentially prevented the environmental and property damages from being much worse” by pulling a cut of 50 tank cars to safety away from the burning derailed cars. The crew later went back and removed 20 additional cars from the scene of the fire. That wouldn’t have happened if there were only one-person crews.

Safety studies show that locomotive engineers and conductors function as an integrated team, monitoring the operating environment outside the locomotive, while also collaborating in planning activities, problem solving, and identifying and mitigating potential risk. While the locomotive engineer is guiding the train over the road, and separate and apart from team functions, the conductor: manages train consist and makeup; checks speed, signal indications, and engineer alertness; interacts with non-crewmembers such as dispatchers and roadway workers; diagnoses and responds to train problems; and manages the crew’s paperwork.

Moreover, conductors are the source of supply for future locomotive engineers on virtually every freight railroad. As engineer training and promotion approach, the conductor also must focus on gaining knowledge of the territory, including maintaining awareness of surroundings. He or she also must develop the ability to project the effect of consist on train dynamics, which includes the ability to plan ahead, and to multitask; all in preparation for one day becoming a locomotive engineer in many cases.

The importance of a second crewmember will be heightened—not lessened—when PTC is deployed. PTC can provide warnings of upcoming signals, work zones and speed restrictions, and can bring the train to a stop in an emergency situation. However—and as FRA notes—PTC cannot account for all the physical and cognitive functions that a conductor currently provides. PTC cannot monitor events outside the cab window for potential obstacles and hazards undetected by automated systems, nor does it prevent collisions or derailments when operating at restricted speed. This will be more important than ever, because PTC will much more frequently require an engineer to divert his attention from outside the cab to the displays in front of him or her.

PTC cannot go back and inspect a train that has experienced an undesired emergency brake application, and it cannot change the broken air hose and restore the train’s braking system. PTC also is not required to and cannot prevent low-speed rear-end collisions. When a train is being held out of the yard, PTC can’t cut a crossing to provide access to first responders who have to cross the railroad to attend to a community emergency. And it is of no help when you need to move volatile cargo away from the scene of a fire.

The industry’s generations old “swap technologies for jobs” model must be retired, for the sake of railroad worker and public safety. To that end, BLET will be working with SMART-TD to file joint comments on FRA’s proposed crew size regulation. Our common goal of improving railroad safety compels us to work together on this important issue, and that will be our approach in responding to the FRA’s proposal.

Monday, May 9, 2016

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