BLE argues against remote control locomotives at FRA conference

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) held a Technical Conference on Remote Control Locomotives on July 19, 2000. The conference was attended by over 75 representatives of the railroad industry, rail labor and industry suppliers. The rail labor contingent was comprised of representatives of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE), the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen (BRS) and the United Transportation Union (UTU). United Steelworkers of America representative Frank Grimes also attended the meeting, to provide details on numerous accidents, including fatalities, connected with the use of remote control in steel plants.

In opening remarks, the UTU informed the conference of the agreement between the operating craft unions to maintain a single position, stating that "(b)ecause of the significance of this issue to the lives and safety of the people working in our industry, the UTU and BLE are here today united and speaking with one voice. We are here today as one group to actively participate in development of a proposal on substantive provisions designed to ensure the safety of employees represented by both unions, and to limit the use of remote control to those operations currently existing."

Each union provided witnesses with experience operating remote control locomotives (RCLs). Their testimony provided serious challenges to any railroad implementing those operations. Among the issues were the ergonomic risk factors associated with a locomotive controller, carried around the waist, while also performing dangerous work on railroad equipment. There are known physical problems caused by static loads on the body. Safety concerns increase when a locomotive controller that is safety-critical in train movement is the object being carried. Concern was expressed over exposure to the emission of electromagnetic fields (EMFs) from the transmitter.

Despite assurances from the promoters of remote control and the railroads who praised RCL use as the next big step in improving productivity, labor was not persuaded that any of our safety questions were satisfactorily answered. The data offered by the American Short Line and Regional Rail Association, among others, was vehemently disputed by the BLE/UTU contingent. Actual data provided by the unions contradicted the sparse and highly selective presentation made on the carriers' behalf.

A frequent argument, and a flawed premise in the promoter's accident data, is the claim that no accidents were the result of the technology or the equipment. That is like saying cars don't cause car wrecks... people do. Both unions argued that RCL use changes work processes, and that these changes increase the risk of accidents and injury.

A common theme among the promoters was that RCL is safer because it puts the person at the point of the movement in the position to control it. Yet, labor finds that after implementation, point protection typically is sacrificed for the sake of improved efficiency. Similarly, operations have increased risk by permitting or requiring the riding of equipment while simultaneously carrying or operating the locomotive from a remote controller.

BRS forcefully opposed the impact RCL use may have on Roadway Worker protection and protection for other workers provided through the "Blue Signal" regulation. Speaking on behalf of the operating craft coalition, BLE argued "(t)he principle, established by both the present comprehensive regulatory fabric as well as real world operating practices is that, for safety's sake, you must have localized on-board control of the movement of locomotives in an identifiable and predictable place so as to control it in coordinating the work of many unrelated crafts."

The rail labor coalition agreed that good communications among operating employees is what ensures protection of the movement, keeps everyone safe, and adds to efficiency.

USWA representative Frank Grimes issued a detailed report documenting worker injury and death caused by operation of remote control locomotives in the steel industry. His report is on the BLE website at:


2000 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers