Robert Peterson, a BNSF conductor out of Local 951 (Sheridan, Wyo.), questions the cost and need for freight railroads to push into automated technology in an opinion piece published Feb. 12 on the Railway Age website.
Class I freight carriers are thriving with booming profits and record operating ratios, Peterson argues, and are doing so with two people in the cab and by supporting the efforts of crews with newly developed advances in technology.
In addition, he writes, Federal Railroad Administration data shows that the industry as a whole is going through a period of decline in accident rates.
“This data implies an improved safety trend is due in part to current operating rules that utilize two-person train crews and technological safety advances in train operations,” he writes.
And, while the fully autonomous Rio Tinto AutoHaul operation has drawn headlines, it cost the company upwards of $900 million, Peterson writes, and this kind of operation may not even be economically feasible in the United States with the differences in terrain, the 140,000 miles of Class I trackage and other considerations, including the type of materials hauled.
“Is the American public ready to gamble lives on a computer-run vs human-run freight train?” Peterson concludes.
Follow this link to read the entire column on the Railway Age website.

SMART Transportation Division President John Previsich and leaders from four other unions — the ATDA, BLET, BRS and TCU — submitted a 26-page document May 7 in response to the Federal Railroad Administration’s request for comment on autonomous trains.
In it, Previsich and union leaders Leo McCann, Dennis Pierce, W. Dan Pickett and Richard Johnson outline the approach they believe the industry should take in adopting new technologies in the rail industry in addition to the continuing role labor will play as these technologies advance.
To read a PDF of their submission, visit this link.
Previsich also submitted a second set of comments to FRA outlining SMART TD’s position on automation.
“Safety must be first and foremost when discussing the future of automation of our nation’s railroads,” Previsich wrote. “It would be unethical and would violate the mandate of Congress to sacrifice safety for potential profits.”
SMART TD’s comments:
1. Safety and security must be our No. 1 priority
2. Essential job functions of human railroad employees cannot be automated
In addition, the condition of America’s infrastructure, the risk of cyberattacks and the elimination of the human element of being able to watch and respond to possible safety threats also should be weighed as autonomous technology is considered, Previsich said.
“The functions of human crewmembers can never be fully automated in a way that maintains safety at its current level, let alone increases safety,” Previsich wrote. “In this industry, we are beset by challenges from all sides, and it is critical that at this juncture we take all of these challenges into consideration when it comes to automation, so as to keep railroads moving efficiently, profitably, and most importantly, safely.”
To read SMART TD’s full comments, follow this link.