Despite East Palestine toxic train disaster, railroads still want single-person crews


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The nation’s major freight railroads have long desired to have only one crew member, a lone engineer, in the cab of their locomotives. And that desire hasn’t changed despite the Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern train that released toxic chemicals into the air, water and soil of East Palestine, Ohio, which is still being cleaned up.

But that accident pretty much killed the railroad’s chances of achieving that one-man crew goal.

Rail safety legislation introduced Wednesday in Congress with bipartisan support would include a ban on single-person crews. There is no current law or federal regulation that requires both an engineer and a conductor to be on a train. Instead, it is the only labor deal with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and the Transportation Division of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, Transportation Union (SMART-TD), which represents conductors, with at least one member from each union. requires Cab of the locomotive.

The Association of American Railroads confirmed that its position in favor of one-man crews has not changed. It believed that it would be more efficient, and safer, for engineers to respond to train problems by driving along the tracks in trucks than in the cabs of locomotives.

“The position on workforce size has not changed. The railroads are clear that they support fact-driven policies that address the cause of this accident and enhance safety,” the AAR statement said. “As we continue to review this bill, it is clear that it contains many of the same wish list items that AAR and others have clearly stated will not prevent this type of accident in the future. Like… arbitrary crew size regulation. The railroads look forward to working with all stakeholders to meaningfully advance real solutions.

Union Pacific said opposition to the two-person crew mandate doesn’t mean the railroad doesn’t care about safety.

“No data indicates that a two-person crew confined to a cab is safe, and train crew sizes should be determined through collective bargaining,” a statement from UP said. “The proposed legislation limits our ability to compete in a business landscape where technology is rapidly changing the transportation industry.”

Other major freight railroads — Norfolk Southern, CSX, Burlington Northern Santa Fe — did not respond to questions about the law. But AAR is a trade group that lobbies on their behalf.

AAR’s statement did not address the question of whether the rule is now more likely to pass. But Jeremy Ferguson, president of SMART-TD, said the accident completely changed the possibility of the two-person crew requirement being written into US law.

“Absolutely,” he said in an interview with CNN Business when asked if he thought the provision would pass now. “When an incident like this happens, it brings to the fore all the issues, how insecure the rail industry really is. I didn’t think we had a chance before that. The railroads and AAR do a great job of lobbying in DC. So it’s usually hard to get people to vote for something like this rule. But sometimes it takes a disaster to drive the point home. Whenever you turn on the TV, there is still a problem. It’s not going away. ”

Senators, both Democrats and Republicans, sponsoring the rail safety bill say they hope to now have bipartisan support to change the law.

“Rail lobbyists have fought for years to protect their profits at the expense of communities like East Palestine,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, Ohio Democrat. “These common-sense bipartisan safeguards will finally hold the major railroad companies accountable, make our railroads and the towns along them safer, and prevent future tragedies, so no community suffers like East Palestine again.” Will have to.”

“Through this legislation, Congress has a real opportunity to ensure that what happened in East Palestine never happens again,” said Sen. JD Vance, Republican of Ohio, who is a co-sponsor. “We owe every American the peace of mind that their community is safe from this type of disaster.”

If the law is changed because of the East Palestine derailment, it would not be the first disaster that has changed the rules and laws governing trains. In 2013, a runaway Canadian freight train carrying oil tanker cars crashed in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, starting a massive fire that killed 47 people and destroyed 40 buildings in the town. Canada responded by changing its legislation to require a two-person crew on trains carrying hazardous materials.

But calls to change the law in the United States fell on deaf ears because of that accident.

The fact that there were three workers on the train in East Palestine – an engineer, a conductor and a trainee – did not prevent the accident from occurring.

The National Transportation Safety Board’s initial finding of the disaster was that the fire actually started when a rail car carrying plastic pellets was heated by a hot axle.

After the fire, the train passed three trackside detectors meant to detect if there was a problem due to overheating. But the first two didn’t indicate a problem, even as the fire raised temperatures to more than 100 degrees. The detectors are designed not to alert the crew until there is a 200-degree rise in temperature. Finally the third detector registered a temperature rise of more than 250 degrees, which triggered an alarm in the cab of the locomotive.

The NTSB said the engineer immediately responded to the alarm by applying the brakes in an attempt to stop the train, but before the train could be stopped, a wheel on the burning car failed, causing it to derail.

Ferguson said that while the crew could not prevent this derailment, there are countless times that they detect a problem and prevent the derailment. He said that many problems would be missed and many more would be derailed if the train did not have a conductor.

“When a detector goes off, you stop the train and the conductor can walk back and check if there’s an overheating axle and make an immediate decision,” Ferguson said. The engineer is not allowed to get out of the locomotive, even when it stops. Only the conductor can check to see what problems triggered the alarm.

But if the conductor is traveling in a truck, rather than riding in the cab of a locomotive, it may take an hour or more for the conductor to get there, and the axle may be cold. At that point, according to Ferguson, the conductor may have to send the train back on its way, even though the original problem that tripped the heat detector — a faulty axle or bearing — is still a problem that could quickly derail. .

“So that could cause a guy to derail in a truck,” Ferguson said.

Beyond these types of problems, having a second person in the cab can provide greater attention to detail during long train journeys.

“You have two sets of ears and two sets of eyes. That always helps,” Ferguson said.

And it also helps in case of medical emergency. In January, a CSX engineer suffered a heart attack while hauling a freight train in Savannah, Georgia, according to the Engineers Union. The conductor was able to recognize that she was in distress, gave her an aspirin and called an ambulance ahead to wait for her at the rail yard.

The engineer required emergency bypass surgery, but survived a heart attack.

“It happens more often than people realize,” Ferguson said. “It doesn’t always have to be a heart attack. But having two people there always pays dividends for crew members. ”

CSX did not immediately comment on the incident.

The fact that the current labor contract requires two crew members is of little comfort to the engineer and conductor unions.

They point out that under the Railway Labor Act, they can have a contract that is opposed by some or all of the rail unions imposed on them by Congress, as happened last December. Although this current contract provides for two-person crews, not all future contracts will necessarily do so, even if unions continue to prioritize the issue.

Congress usually enforces what is done by a panel appointed by the president to propose a deal that hopefully both labor and management can accept. But it may contain one or two provisions that are deal-breakers for unions, such as allowing single-person crews.

“Given the wrong president, we could lose it in a hurry,” Ferguson said.

The Federal Railroad Administration is also considering a rule that would require two-person crews. But Ferguson said having the requirement written into law would be better than a simple rule. It may be easier to change an FRA regulation under a new administration than it is to achieve a change in law.

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