Judge rules on remote control

Judge mandates arbitration; UTU, carriers to begin joint pilot program using remote control locomotives

A U.S. District Court Judge in Chicago decided on January 14 in a 16 page opinion that the operation of locomotives in terminals and yards by train service employees using remote control technology is a "minor dispute," which should be decided by arbitration.

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers had argued that the issue was a "major dispute." If the court had found the dispute to be major, the railroads would have been blocked from implementing their remote control plans, and they would have been forced to bargain with BLE concerning remote control working conditions, or face a potential strike by locomotive engineers.

"Clearly, the BLE does not agree with the Judge's decision," said BLE International President Don M. Hahs. "It's been our position all along that locomotive engineers should run locomotives, regardless of whether they're in the cab or on the ground. Locomotive engineers are the most qualified and highly trained members of the train operating crew."

In reaching its decision, the court was careful to point out that it was not convinced that the remote control beltpack is merely a "communication device," as urged by the railroads. All the court had to decide, Judge Joan B. Gottschall said, was whether the railroads provided enough evidence to show that their argument met the standard set by U.S. Supreme Court that their position was not completely frivolous.

According to BLE Vice-President & Arbitration Director Richard K. Radek, who assisted in the case with BLE Attorney Mike Wolly, the railroads used several Section 6 notices filed by BLE General Committees as evidence to support their claim that their position met the non-frivolous standard. These Section 6 notices asked the carriers to negotiate rules and working conditions for remote control operations, and the railroads argued that the notices were an implied recognition by BLE that the union did not already have an exclusive right to operate remote control engines.

The railroads also presented two arbitration awards as evidence to meet the non-frivolous standard. One involved the operation of engines by remote control at a Burlington Northern car repair facility in Nebraska. The other award was a decision by a Canadian arbitrator who decided in 1993 that the beltpack was a communication device signaling microprocessors, and that it did not directly control a locomotive as an engineer does.

On January 16, the U.S. District Court issued an injunction against any strike or job action by the BLE.

President Hahs pointed out that allowing locomotive engineers to operate remote control locomotives would, "allow carriers to receive maximum utilization of the technology." He explained that locomotives equipped with remote control technology can be operated both remotely and manually. In the event the technology fails, a locomotive engineer would be able to complete the job, while a trainman or conductor would not. Federal Railroad Administration safety rules allow only certified locomotive engineers to operate trains. Locomotive engineers must be federally certified and carry a license in order to run locomotives, in much the same way that airline pilots must also be licensed to fly planes.

"We are willing to enter into agreements regarding this technology, but we have been rebuffed by the carriers, who appear intent on bargaining only with the UTU," Hahs said.

Just hours after the court's decision on January 14, the United Transportation Union and the National Carriers' Conference Committee, released a joint press release announcing an agreement to initiate pilot projects implementing and utilizing remote control technology.

In light of the Court's ruling, the next step will be arbitration. President Hahs said, "It is unknown at this early stage what form the arbitration will take, or how soon a hearing will be held. But we will take every possible action to prevail in the fight to retain what is historically our work."


2002 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers