Remote control's been workin' on the railroad

(The following article by Tony Hartzel was posted on the Dallas Morning News website on February 13.)

DALLAS -- The remote control -- it's not just for volume, channel and power anymore.

Try a 2,000-horsepower engine, speed control and locomotive whistle.

For almost a year, engineer-less locomotives have been gliding along the tracks in Union Pacific's North Texas rail yards. They also have made their way into Burlington Northern Santa Fe sites throughout the state.

Remote-control technology has made it easier and cheaper to hook up rail cars. On-board engineers have been replaced by remote control-toting workers who stand to the side of the trains to run them.

"It's pretty simple to operate," said John Bromley, director of public affairs for Union Pacific.

Railroad companies first started using the technology about two years ago. Federal guidelines, not formal rules, suggest that railroads keep remote-control locomotives confined to switching yards.

Union Pacific's agreements with its unions allow for some operations near rail yards and to nearby businesses. So in some cases, empty locomotives may venture near street crossings in places such as West Dallas, Arlington or Fort Worth. Union Pacific runs an average of 31 trains a day through North Texas.

Although some cities across the country have enacted bans on remote-control locomotives, Fort Worth officials have not raised any concerns because the operations have been confined to rail yard areas, said Russ Wiles, railroad project manager for the city.

"Perhaps one day, if they venture regularly into public crossings, then there might be a concern," he said.

The train's remote controls would be nirvana to the couch potato seeking the ultimate universal remote. The equipment, with help from onboard computers, governs everything from direction of the locomotive to its speed, headlights, whistles and brakes.

Some units have about a one-mile range, but technology located beside tracks in rail yards can keep them from venturing beyond set points. A train automatically stops if it loses the remote control signal.

A completely empty train may be difficult for non-railroad employees to find. Both railroad companies require a remote control operator to stay with a train if it is making a delivery trip to a nearby business.

"You have to have a person on the ground monitoring the movement of the train. That's the way it works," said Joe Faust, a BNSF spokesman.

And using the technology regularly on main lines proves difficult because the equipment does not allow the Union Pacific locomotives to travel faster than 15 mph. BNSF trains go no faster than 10 mph.

"People may envision that we can dial Los Angeles for a train to Dallas and it will take off," Mr. Bromley said. "That's not in the cards at all."

On Union Pacific lines, the use of remote controls has led to a 30 percent reduction in crashes, the company says. But last year, a San Antonio employee was killed when a train he was operating ran over him, Mr. Bromley said.

Rather than have three people handle switching in rail yards, the remote control allows the work to be done by two. Remote controls also have allowed the railroad to shift higher-paid engineers back onto longer-haul trips and move locomotives in rail yards with lesser-paid conductors and other rail workers. Union Pacific has eliminated 600 engineer jobs by using the four-pound remote boxes.

The Cleveland-based Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen opposed the move, which allowed another union representing rail yard workers to assume the remote controls in switching areas.

Longtime engineers have been forced out of the more regular rail yard jobs and back onto the main line routes, said spokesman John Bentley. But equally important to the union is the lack of federal rules governing the remote control locomotives' operation.

"Our ultimate goal is to have federal regulations to govern the use of the technology," he said. "Right now, they're just recommendations that say, 'You might not want to kill yourself while operating these things.' "

Engineers undergo eight months of training, while a conductor receives 88 hours of training to run a locomotive by remote control.

"From our perspective, we've said all along it's a safety issue," said Mr. Bentley, who added that the public should be concerned. "People need to know this is happening."

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

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