FRA research on remote control confirms significant safety concerns

The Federal Railroad Administration's Office of Research and Development issued two reports on May 24, confirming significant safety concerns with remote control locomotives.

In general, the FRA-sponsored research documents many of the concerns expressed by the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen regarding the hazards of remote control.

The FRA's report (RR05-05), titled "Human Factors Root Cause Analysis of Accidents/Incidents Involving Remote Control Locomotives," collected information on reportable remote control accidents/incidents from May to October 2004. A total of 67 remote control accidents/incidents were reported during that time, but only six were studied in detail.

The FRA's analysis determined that four critical safety issues were common in the six case studies:

"The FRA's conclusions come as no surprise to the BLET," National President Don Hahs said. "We have argued for more than three years now that remote control operators are too inexperienced and receive too little training. We have also spoken out about the need for enforceable safety regulations to govern operation of the technology and the fact that two overwhelmed crew members cannot perform the work of three people. We have also argued that lack of proper point protection is a major factor in many accidents and the FRA's report goes along with what we've said from the beginning."

The other FRA sponsored report (RR05-03) is titled "Remote Control Operations: Results of Focus Groups with Remote Control Operators in the U.S. and Canada." Seventy-eight RCOs participated in 12 focus group meetings conducted in four cities from March to May of 2003. The focus groups expressed several key themes that echoed the BLET on a number of issues, including:

The BLET strongly objects to one of the "key themes" stated by FRA in its research report. According to the report, remote control operators noted that many adjustments would need to be made in order to operate remote control locomotives in "other-than-yard" operations. The RCOs specifically asked for the following: "more extensive training (to cover train handling, air brakes, locomotive systems and troubleshooting, communications protocols, and territory familiarization), more reliable and responsive RCL equipment (e.g., the locomotive's brakes must respond immediately to an RCD input), and more information on, and control over, the RCL and consist (e.g., information on air pressure status and access to dynamic brakes). RCOs wanted as much knowledge and control over the locomotive and consist as locomotive engineers have when operating a locomotive conventionally."

'The RCOs indicated that there are three areas of improvement necessary to engage in 'other-than-yard' operations," President Hahs said. "However, the BLET will say right now that each of those three areas infringe upon the specific duties reserved for locomotive engineers under the collective bargaining agreements. These suggested changes or 'improvements' also violate the January 10, 2003, decision of Arbitrator Gil Vernon, Chairman of Special Board of Adjustment No. 1141."

In that case, the Arbitrator ruled that remote control should only be used in and around yards.

"In essence, the FRA is suggesting that these employees be given the same safety sensitive duties as locomotive engineers," President Hahs said. "Evidently, these employees know that operating a train from the cab of the locomotive is the safest way to work. Since that is the case, the work of locomotive engineers should be left to locomotive engineers.

"In the Vernon award, which gave the remote control work to UTU members, the arbitrator used the following analogy: He said locomotive engineers were comparable to highly skilled chefs preparing a seven-course meal, while remote control operators were comparable to an untrained chef pushing a button on a microwave oven to cook a TV dinner. It now appears the FRA is suggesting that those microwave operators receive chef training."

President Hahs indicated that such "improvements," even if they were technologically possible, would not offer an equivalent level of safety as conventional cab operations and therefore, any attempt to implement them would be challenged by BLET.

The FRA reports were performed by Foster-Miller, Inc., under the direction of the FRA Office of Research and Development (Human Factors Program) and the FRA Office of Safety. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the United Transportation Union also lent support. Dr. Frederick Gamst provided expertise during the study as well.

Copies of the reports are available on the BLET website at:


© 2005 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen