FRA: Intensive conductor training essential

December 25, 2012

FRA logo

FRA logoOne of the strongest studies validating the need for two-person crews and intensive training for conductors has come from the Federal Railroad Administration.

The conclusion is that the conductor and engineer function as a team, with managing multiple priorities essential to safe train operation – especially with regard to use of positive train control technology that will be installed on some 40 percent of mainline track.

The FRA observes that such mixed territory operation will require a higher level of vigilance by the train crew, including detailed knowledge of territory that can come only from intensive conductor training.

“This study supports what the UTU has been advocating – that conductor training standards, system safety plans, fatigue management and risk reduction must be given the highest priority by railroads to ensure safe operation,” said UTU National Legislative Director James Stem.

The FRA study emphasizes that the conductor’s main task is to supervise overall operation and administration of the train, which involves communicating closely with the engineer regarding upcoming signals and slow orders, alerting the engineer to hills, curves and grade crossings, monitoring the engineer’s performance, providing back-up as needed, and handling all radio communications and paperwork “so that the locomotive engineer can concentrate on operating the train.

“Knowledge of the territory provides the foundation for being able to operate safely and efficiently,” says the FRA. “Train crews need to develop a detailed mental model of the physical territory in which they operate. This includes knowledge of territory grade, location of signals, milepost signs, grade crossing landmarks, sidings, switches and detectors, as well as knowledge of track layout of yards and location of industries.”

Conductors also must “monitor the composition of their train consist relative to key elements in the environment,” says the report. “For example, they need to maintain awareness of the location of the front and back of the train relative to grade crossings or speed restriction zones [and] whether their train will fit without blocking a crossing” as well as knowledge of high and wide cars and clearances and parallel track meets.

A conductor must be “a problem solver,” says the FRA, because “conductors routinely confront novel situations where they perform mental simulations to identify a correct solution. This skill develops with experience.”

For a conductor to perform at their highest level of skill, “it can take up to five years’ experience to gain sufficient experience to become a confident, expert conductor,” says the FRA. “Too much is at stake in terms of safety of the operation to permit short-cutting of experience and training,” said Stem.

The FRA endorses a combination of classroom training with on-the-job training, assuring that students spend time in the classroom learning, go out in the field to apply what they learned, and then return to the classroom to be tested. Proficiency based training with incremental blocks of training and testing before advancing is based on the science of knowledge transfer.

Regulations for conductor certification adopt many of these conclusions. This report confirms that territorial qualifications are an integral part of the functions of conductors and engineers and must be addressed as such. If the conductor has not obtained the necessary qualifications on a territory, a certified conductor with those qualifications must be added to the crew as a pilot.

Other conclusions in the study are that the operating crew must function as a team to properly manage the multiple safety requirements on a moving train, and the judgment of the operating crew is the most important safety appliance.

The UTU is monitoring closely railroad conductor certification plans, opposing one railroad’s plan to provide a pilot for territorial qualifications only for conductors who have not traveled over a territory for 36 months, rather than the 12 months required in current agreements. Some territories are so complex that operating crews are required to update their territorial qualifications every six months.

“The UTU will not permit a tortured interpretation” of congressional and FRA intent, and will work to ensure every railroad follows the letter and intent of the law and regulations prior to the deadline for certifying conductors,” said UTU International President Mike Futhey.

“The railroads tried to supersede 50 years of collective bargaining success with their filing on conductor certification. The UTU did not allow a new safety regulation to change the many common sense solutions that have been implemented during the past five decades,” Futhey said. “This report fully bolsters our position.”

 To read the FRA report, click here.