A proposal that some freight trains through Spokane could have just one person on board as early as January has divided a union of rail workers and added fuel to a debate about how trains can be safely operated.
The tentative agreement, forged last month between BNSF Railway and a union representing conductors and engineers, would allow trains equipped with new accident prevention technology to shed their human conductors. The agreement was negotiated and signed by eight members of a general committee of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union (SMART).
Nearly 6,000 BNSF ground service employees throughout the Midwest and Pacific Northwest would be affected by the change. Trains without the safety technology would keep their conductors.
The proposal comes as rail companies and government agencies still are scrambling to address public safety concerns more than a year after a runaway train carrying North Dakota crude oil derailed and exploded, killing 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec.
Didn’t see it coming
As SMART members submit ballots this month to finalize the agreement, railroad workers – including the union’s national president – have questioned the implications of single-member crews.
“We did not see this coming,” said Paul Mills, a former railroad conductor for 15 years in the Spokane area and SMART union member. “If it is to be ratified, it would probably change the way railroads work forever.”
The agreement would allow BNSF to cut on-board train crews to one person – a locomotive engineer – on freight trains that use a safety feature called positive train control.
The technology, which Congress has mandated for all Class I rail carriers and commuter rail providers by the end of 2015, uses GPS information to link locomotives and central dispatchers. It can automatically apply brakes when trains exceed authorized speeds, approach a stop signal or otherwise violate the complex system of rules that govern tracks.
But Mills said his concern lies with a safety hazard no computer can solve: the unavoidable fatigue and solitude of operating a train solo. In his years working an erratic schedule, he’d get called into work at all hours of the night with a notice of two hours or less.
He then would be on a train for up to 12 hours, stay in a motel for a day, then hop back on the train for another 12 hours.
“If one guy’s real tired, the other guy’s looking out for him,” Mills said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ll look over and my guy’s just exhausted.”
The conductor’s job duties would effectively shift to a so-called “master conductor,” a position created during negotiations that the committee hailed as a “transformational approach to railroad operations.” The new position “has a broad array of responsibilities and opportunities,” including “any combination of ground service duties, and perform other lawful railroad duties, as requested by the company,” according to the agreement.
General committee members could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.
Railroad Workers United (RWU), a caucus of rank-and-file workers across several railroad unions , has condemned the idea that one-crew trains could operate just as safely as those with two crew members.
When the SMART committee met local representatives in Spokane last month, RWU organized a rally opposing the measure, inviting “railroaders … including engineers and track-workers, their families and environmental allies.”
“Master conductors would no longer perform what is currently the primary responsibility of a conductor – supervising the safe operation and administration of the train,” the group stated in a news release.
Robert Hill, former chairman of RWU and a member of SMART, said the committee’s “rogue” agreement is full of holes and a vague job description for the conductor.
And although BNSF has promised to keep two operators on trains carrying crude oil, ethanol and other hazardous materials, no law exists that would stop companies from cutting in the future, as federal legislation and regulations promised in the wake of the Quebec incident have stalled.
“It’s left up to the interpretation of the carrier,” Hill said. “This is absolutely preposterous to leave a contract this wide open.”
It also goes against SMART’s own national platform of supporting two-member crews for all trains.
“It is imprudent for anyone to assert that technology can replace the safety and security of a two-person crew,” SMART’s Transportation Division President John Previsich wrote in July. “The check, double check, extra set of eyes and ears watching both sides of the train and division of tasks are safety measures that cannot be duplicated.”
Proponents of the crew change argue no evidence supports the claim that trains are less safe with one person at the helm.
Rail accidents have declined significantly in the last decade, according to incident data collected by the Federal Railroad Administration. Nationwide, derailments in 2013 were almost half the number in 2004. Highway-rail accidents have decreased by a third.
In Washington last year, there were 19 derailments involving 60 cars that injured one person and caused $1.3 million in damage. Most incidents happened at speeds of less than 10 miles per hour.
The leading cause of all train accidents in the United States is human error, closely followed by track defects, according to the railroad administration. When it comes to derailments, track defects are most often the cause. Canadian officials said this week it is inconclusive whether another crew member would have prevented the Quebec accident, which happened when an engineer left a train overnight and failed to properly apply the brakes.
But the Canada Transportation Safety Board, which investigated the incident, listed single-member crews as one of 16 risks that have the “potential to degrade rail safety.”