Rail Labor: 'No' to single-man crews

BLET, UTU, BMWED and BRS testify against BNSF waiver request

BNSF Railway should not be permitted to operate trains with single-person crews until appropriate safety studies have been completed and regulations are in place, the Federal Railroad Administration was told by rail labor on February 23.

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, the United Transportation Union, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division and the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen told FRA safety experts that a request by BNSF Railway to extend its existing special waiver to operate an experimental version of positive train control (PTC) should not be granted until employee and public safety can be assured.

BNSF is seeking to expand operation of a pilot project called the Electronic Train Management System (ETMS) over 329 miles of track on its Ft. Worth and Red Rock subdivisions in Texas. BNSF already has a waiver to operate ETMS on its 115-mile Beardstown, Ill., subdivision.

BNSF wants the FRA to grant it authority to operate ETMS-equipped trains with a single crew member.

Thomas Pontolillo, BLET's director of regulatory affairs, told the FRA, "We believe that the most effective positive train control is one that complements and supplements the work of today's two- or three-person train crew, and that PTC as a means of further reducing crew size will diminish - rather than enhance - safety." He was accompanied by BLET National President Don Hahs.

"This specific waiver request is an underhanded attempt by BNSF to confuse FRA enough to ignore the severe ramifications of single-person operations to the overall rail safety equation," said UTU Alternate National Legislative Director James Stem. "The multiple safety functions of the second operating crew member are not replaced by ETMS." Stem was accompanied by UTU International President Paul Thompson, UTU Assistant President Rick Marceau and UTU National Legislative Director James Brunkenhoefer.

Also testifying in support of the BLET and UTU position were Rick Inclima, director of safety for the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division, and Tim DePaepe, director of research for the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen.

"The waiver in question explicitly seeks removal of the second crew member, the important second set of eyes and ears, from the cab of the locomotive," Inclima said. "If allowed, it will remove the vitally important safety function that is fulfilled by the second person in the locomotive cab."

The FRA hearing into BNSF's waiver request came less than 24 hours after the FRA issued an 88-page report observing, "For freight trains, the conductor and engineer work as a team. One member points out situations that may have escaped the other's attention." That report, by the FRA's Collision Analysis Working Group, which includes representatives of the FRA, rail labor and carriers, followed an exhaustive review of 65 main-line train collisions between 1997 and year-end 2002.

The FRA was told by rail labor that BNSF's ETMS does not meet the core functions of a positive train control system, which is defined by the FRA as able to prevent collisions between trains, enforce train-speed restrictions, and protect roadway workers. Indeed, even the more advanced core-function PTC system in use on the Alaska Railroad is operated by a minimum of two-person crews.

There have been no federal studies to determine the impact on public safety and homeland security of single-person crews, the FRA was told. Railroads carry some of the most deadly hazmat known to humanity. Two- and three-person crews already suffer fatigue from long hours and limited rest days. ETMS and other versions of PTC require additional attention to interactive computer screens that could add further to fatigue and make the second set of eyes more critical.

Nor has there been appropriate investigation into the effect on mainline operations of single-operator trains involved in derailments, grade-crossing accidents, trespasser fatalities and injuries, or instances of broken air-brake hoses and couplers, sticking brakes, shifted lading, dragging equipment, overheated axles or hazmat releases.

Thousands of derailments and highway-rail grade-crossing accidents ­ and more than 1,000 grade-crossing/trespasser fatalities - occur annually, requiring a second crew member who, among other safety- and security-related duties, notifies emergency responders, instructs rail dispatchers to halt traffic in both directions, assists the engineer who might be injured, and breaks the train apart in order to clear a blocked crossing used by emergency vehicles.

Rail labor made clear to the FRA that it fully supports development of PTC systems, which have been on the National Transportation Safety Board's most-wanted list for nearly two decades.

What labor does not support is the attempt by BNSF and/or other railroads to use experimental PTC as a Trojan Horse to reduce crew size absent appropriate studies - followed by regulations - into the public safety and homeland security implications of those reduced crews.



© 2006 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen