Part II: The 'pretzel logic' of remote control

Carriers, AAR, UTU employ twisted logic to justify implementation, continued use of RCL

(This is the second in a three-part series of articles in which the BLET takes a look at recent actions of the Federal Railroad Administration, the Association of American Railroads, and the United Transportation Union to further expand the use of remote control locomotives to main track territory. Part I was published in the October issue of the Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen News, while Part III will appear in the December issue.)

(In Part II of the series, we examine the reactions of the AAR and UTU to FRA's September 9, 2005 letter. A complete copy of this series is available on the BLET website at the following link:

AAR Rolls On

In spite of the AAR's stated position that RCL technology was to be used in yard operations only, some of their members have obviously moved to expand use to the main track. Additionally, AAR has seized the ball and already begun to run by commenting on the overdue Final Report to Congress, AAR predicted that the "report is expected to show that employee safety is enhanced by RCL, with reductions in both injuries and injury rates when compared with conventional operations." This claim apparently is predicated upon a pair of tables published in FRA's May 2004 Interim Report to Congress. These tables fail to support AAR's and FRA's position for two reasons.

First, the tables are based on misleading calculations that actually camouflaged a degradation of safety as a result of RCL implementation. The table identified in the Interim Report as "Enclosure No. 1," covering Part 225 reportable accidents/incidents during the period May 1, 2003, through November 30, 2003, indicates that there were 21.00 RCL accidents per million yard switching miles and 24.28 conventional accidents per million yard switching miles, which represents a ratio of approximately 0.865 RCL accidents per conventional accident. Extrapolating the data for Class I railroads, only, produces RCL and conventional accident rates of 21.24 and 24.67, respectively, for a ratio of 0.861 RCL accidents per conventional accident.

Enclosure No. 2 - covering "casualties" (i.e., Part 225 reportable injuries, occupational illnesses and deaths) - indicates casualty rates of 8.12 for RCL and 18.94 for conventional, again as measured per million yard switching miles, for a ratio of 0.429 RCL casualties per conventional casualty. Extrapolating the data for Class I railroads, only, produces RCL and conventional casualty rates of 7.20 and 19.13, respectively, for a ratio of 0.376 RCL casualties per conventional casualty.

However, this data is of little value in estimating the safety risks associated with RCL operations. RCL assignments and conventional assignments were credited with an identical number of switching miles (6 miles per hour x 8 hours per shift = 48 yard switching miles per shift) for the period covered by the data, even though typical RCL crews are comprised of two members, while conventional crews usually are comprised of three.

In fact, in Safety Advisory 2001-01, FRA's "recommended minimal guidelines" for RCL operations, FRA stated as follows:

Several commentors submitted data that indicate accidents and incidents dropped dramatically as RCL operations increased. Although FRA commends these commentors for their efforts in gathering such data, FRA notes that the data used were obtained without equal exposure metrics to allow valid comparisons between remote control and manual operations (i.e., comparisons were not equalized for the number of labor hours and number of employees). Normalizing safety data is necessary to clarify our understanding of the potential safety risks.

66 FR 10341. Accordingly, in Guideline C.4, FRA recommended "that the railroad keep a record of the total number of labor hours and the total number of employees by location for both RCL and manual switching operations to ensure that accidents and incidents are accurately measured, and that valid comparisons between the two types of operations can then be made." 66 FR 10344.

The industry simply ignored this guideline and, instead, provided only "yard switching miles" data to FRA, despite FRA's determination that data which was not normalized was not valid for comparison purposes. Had FRA promulgated a rule governing RCL, it could have compelled the industry to provide labor hours and headcount data; publishing "guidelines" placed FRA in a position where it was forced to accept whatever data the industry provided. Nevertheless, converting yard switching miles into crew member hours - based on the standard composition of RCL and conventional crews - and recalculating the rates produces a stunning reversal in what is shown.

With respect to reportable accidents/incidents, the appropriate rates are 62.99 RCL accidents per million crew member hours and 48.56 conventional accidents per million crew member hours for all railroads, and 63.72 RCL and 49.34 conventional for Class I railroads only. Based upon the metric that FRA, itself, has identified as valid, the RCL to conventional accident ratios change from 0.865 to 1.297 for all railroads, and from 0.861 to 1.291 for Class I railroads only.

Similarly, the casualty rates under the valid metric are 24.36 for RCL and 37.89 for conventional for all railroads, and 21.61 for RCL and 38.25 for conventional for Class I railroads only. The ratios of RCL to conventional casualties rise from 0.429 to 0.643 for all railroads, and from 0.376 to 0.565 for conventional. Thus, not only does a valid data analysis demonstrate that RCL is far less safe than its proponents claim, it also establishes that the accident/incident rate for RCL is higher than that for conventional operations.

Second, and even if the flaw with the reported data did not exist, AAR cannot draw conclusions from yard switching data that bear any relationship to the potential level of RCL safety in main track operations. Ignoring both the Gamst/Gavalla Report and FRA's own warnings, AAR has chosen to play Pollyanna while it continues to expand the use of RCL.

Given that AAR, first, withheld from FRA its intention to deploy RCO in main track operations and, second, provided data that FRA had previously stated would not afford a valid basis for comparison, it is small wonder that AAR is confident in its ability to "resolve" FRA's concerns. The fact remains, however, that a shell game remains a shell game, no matter how many times it is played.

UTU Treachery

This brings us to UTU. The banner headline screaming "FRA echoes UTU RCL safety concerns" on September 16th is nothing more than the crudest form of spin. UTU's conduct over the past five years tells a far different story.

It is true that, when FRA held its July 19, 2000 technical conference on RCL, UTU joined BLET in urging a careful, reasoned approach to implementation of the technology. However, UTU abandoned that position shortly thereafter, and - when we filed a Petition for Rulemaking governing RCL in November of 2000, which FRA simply ignored - UTU sat mutely, as it did when FRA published its recommended "guidelines" the following February.

Then, in September of the following year, in the middle of our Seventh Quinquennial Convention, UTU signed an agreement with the National Carriers' Conference Committee ("NCCC") claiming the right to the work. In legal action and arbitration that followed, NCCC argued that "the RCO's use of a remote control transmitter is completely different from what engineers do." See, e.g., NCCC Opening Submission to Special Board of Adjustment ("SBA") No. 1141 at p. 42.

UTU argued that the work of the yard ground crew had not changed with the introduction of RCL; rather, "instead of giving hand or lantern or radio signals to control the movement of the locomotive, electronic signals are transmitted to a microprocessor, a computer on the engine, which then performs the work that was formerly done by the locomotive engineer." Transcript of Proceedings before SBA No. 1141 at p. 213.

These arguments - that the work of the yard engineer had been eliminated - served as the basis for the arbitrator's ruling that the NCCC/UTU agreement was valid. He held that while "operation of the locomotive is the exclusive domain of the engineer control is not," because ground crews exercise control to the extent that they provide signals for movement. See Award of SBA No. 1141 at pp. 21-22. The arbitrator also held that operation of remote control locomotive was performed by the "on-board computer," and that all the RCO did was send a signal to the computer via the beltpack. Id. at p. 23.

Since that time UTU has taken another 180 degree turn, and is trying to reclassify RCOs as "mini-engineers." As we reported in August, UTU proposed a scheme whereby the engineer's position on switching crews in two BNSF yards in Washington and Oregon would be eliminated, with the switch foreman becoming trained to operate locomotives to perform the switching in a conventional operation.

This insidious encroachment on the exclusive work of the locomotive engineer by UTU has become the subtext for UTU's "training" mantra, which has been at the center of all UTU efforts since the summer. Significantly, UTU now wraps itself in FRA's letter on main track RCO operations to further this end.

On September 16th, UTU President Paul C. Thompson, right-hand man for Byron Boyd - who is currently serving a two-year sentence in federal prison for corruption and racketeering - at the time the RCL agreement with NCCC was signed, applauded FRA's position, claiming it reflected UTU's desires that the industry "increase the use of mentoring programs that focus on local conditions" and that "more attention must be devoted to upgrading skills to match introduction of new technology."

In other words, Thompson is perfectly willing to place the members he represents, as well as BLET members and all railroad workers who work on or near main track, in harm's way - using RCL well beyond its capabilities in a setting that FRA concedes could result in a catastrophic accident - just for the sake of another job grab. As The Who sang, "Hail to the new boss, same as the old boss."

(In the final part of this series, we pose numerous questions to FRA, AAR, and UTU, that their position on remote control have raised.)


© 2005 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen