POCATELLO, Idaho – Union Pacific Railroad is using remote control trains in its Pocatello yard, becoming the first to do so in Idaho.
The railroad has gone from steam locomotives with five-man crews to remote operations that take just a foreman and helper working remote control belt packs to switch cars and assemble trains sometimes up to a half-mile long.
The technology has been in place in Canada since 1985, and it came to Pocatello in February.
All 11 switch jobs in the yard will soon be remote, but the change won’t cost any workers their jobs at the yard since there’s a shortage of engineers at the site.
Members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen union oppose the switch, saying it raises safety concerns and increases the likelihood of train derailments or accidents involving workers.
“We’re concerned about the citizens of a city like Pocatello, where hazardous shipments are being handled by remote control,” said Mike Hysell, the BLET’s legislative representative for southern Idaho.
The Federal Railroad Administration already approves of Union Pacific’s operating and training programs, said UP spokesman Jon Bromely.
He said no new requirements are needed.
Training time is the main concern the railroad administration has with remote control operations, said spokesman Warren Flatau.
“Our bottom line is with any new technology, we want to proceed cautiously. We take seriously any of the concerns that have been raised,” Flatau said.
“The fact remains, we have not seen any serious safety issues related to remote control.”
Statistics show remote-control trains reduce the number of accidents, according to UP and the railroad administration, which must release a follow-up safety report next month.
In last year’s report, between May 2003 and November 2003, remote control accidents were down 13.5 percent nationally compared to rates with conventional switching.
Shane Adams, a union conductor who has 30 years of experience, questioned the accuracy of that statistic, saying accidents are being reported as training accidents, making the total number of accidents look lower than it actually is.
The report also found that employees were less likely to be injured on remote control yards than conventional yards.
Hysell argued that the study gathered data in too short a time period to be significant.
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