WASHINGTON, DC – The shop craft unions at Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway are urgently callinguponthe Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to initiate unannounced focus inspections on all locomotives and rail cars owned and leased by BNSF Railway, and immediately issue non-compliance orders requiring BNSF to fix all found defects before being permitted to use such equipment, citing concerns over numerous defects that are allegedly being ignored and neglected by BNSF management.
The lettercomes on the heels of BNSF’s recent announcement of over 362 furloughs in the shop craft unions, further exacerbating concerns over safety and maintenance practices. The defects and recent extreme cuts to the workforce pose serious safety risks to railroad operations and personnel.
Many furloughed employees may be forced to accept positions with lower pay and fewer benefits, potentially disrupting their lives and livelihoods.
In a letteraddressed to FRA Administrator Amit Bose, the shop craft unions at BNSF highlighted their ongoing efforts to address safety and maintenance issues within the railroad industry. The letter referenced a meeting held on December 19, 2023, during which the shop craft unions presented evidence of significant workforce reductions within the mechanical departments of Class I freight railroads, including a staggering 41% decrease in employees since 2015.
Reports received by the shop craft unions indicate that BNSF managers that have been under pressure to perform work without an adequate number of workers, may have instructed workers to release locomotives and rail cars for service that have not been adequately inspected or repaired, effectively disregarding federally mandated safety inspections and fabricate of inspection reports, purportedly as part of cost-cutting measures aimed at maximizing shareholder profits.
“BNSF’s actions represent a reckless disregard for the safety and integrity of our nation’s railways,” said the shop craft unions. “BNSF has recently admitted in public filings that they would not be in compliance with federally mandated safety inspections, and we continue to be informed that BNSF has numerous FRA defects on their locomotives and rail cars. There is no shortage of profits for BNSF, and there is no shortage of work to be performed on BNSF equipment. There is simply an obscene shortage of workers and disregard for people at BNSF. By prioritizing cost-cutting over safety, BNSF is placing its employees and the public at risk. In light of these developments, we have urged the FRA to take immediate action to ensure the safety of BNSF operations. Random audits and focus inspections are essential to holding BNSF accountable and preventing further compromises to safety.”
The shop craft unions at BNSF are calling upon the FRA to prioritize the safety of railroad workers and the integrity of railroad operations by promptly conducting inspections of BNSF locomotives and rail cars located at or in transit to all BNSF Locomotive Maintenance Inspection Terminals (LMITs).
The Shop Craft Unions are, in alphabetical order: The Brotherhood of Railroad Carmen Division, TCU/IAM (BRC), the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) , the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers (IBB), the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), the National Conference of Fireman and Oilers, Local 32BJ/SEIU (NCFO), the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers Mechanical Department (SMART MD), the Transportation Communications Union (TCU) and the Transport Workers Union of America (TWU).
Since 1998, trains coming across the Mexican border to the United States in Laredo, Texas, have been run by crews from Mexico that are not certified by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). These crews have been taking trains into Port Laredo, where they receive an initial Class I inspection and brake test on U.S. soil.
This practice was established back in 1998, when Union Pacific requested a variance from FRA. The variance was reconfirmed in 2003, 2008, 2013, 2018 and was reapplied for in 2022. For years, the agency’s leaders responded to any request for renewal by saying, “Yes — if the railroad asked for it, it must be OK.”
But in 2023 — unlike the four prior requests — SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson, National Legislative Director Greg Hynes, Alternate National Legislative Director Jared Cassity and Kamron Saunders, Texas’s state legislative director, officially requested FRA put an end to this practice. Along with our allies in the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department and other rail labor organizations, SMART-TD submitted strong public comments that pointed out many holes in the logic.
In October, FRA released its ruling on UP’s variance request. The carrier will continue to be allowed to perform Class I brake tests 10 miles into the U.S. in its yard in Port Laredo, Texas. However, in a clear victory for labor, a new rule was added:
“13. All trains crossing the international bridge at Laredo and destined for UP’s Port Laredo Yard must be operated from the bridge to that Yard by a properly qualified and certified UP locomotive engineer and conductor.”
Local Chairperson Eddy Castaneda of Local 1670 (Laredo, Texas) is also vice general chairperson of the San Antonio Hub, and explained that he is highly excited about the news out of the FRA.
“It has been a long fight to get this work back, and this is a big win for us. It wouldn’t have been possible without everyone working together,” he said. “All the local chairs in the Laredo Hub — Scott Chelette, our general committee chair, and Kamron Saunders, our Texas state legislative director — as well as the International, have been relentless: working on Congress and the FRA to get these jobs back in the hands of FRA-certified crews.
“We are grateful for those of us here in Laredo, but we have a long fight still to go. There are many other border crossings and a lot more crew bases we need to fight for.”
President Ferguson was in Texas at a Houston rail labor rally shortly after the FRA released its ruling.
“The carriers involved gave our work to non-FRA-certified foreign national crews a long time ago to save a buck for their shareholders,” he said at the time. “Today, our members got back some work that is rightfully ours, and this country is safer and better off for it. I’m proud of the work SMART-TD has done to make this happen.”
Cassity said FRA’s action is a step towards normalizing cross-border regulation.
“It is great that we got this work back for our crews, but the big-picture win is that FRA listened to SMART-TD,” he explained. “They listened to the views of Kamron Saunders and didn’t blindly swallow whatever the railroads tried to sell them. This FRA isn’t afraid to deny the railroad what they want if it isn’t the safest policy for our workers and the country itself.”
For more information, read FRA’s ruling embedded below.
It’s difficult to imagine trying to pass off reducing the braking power of a freight train as a safety precaution, but that is exactly what BNSF attempted to do recently in a request to the FRA for a variance to increase the allowable amount of flow from 90 CFM to 120 CFM.
In their request, BNSF states that in order to reduce the slip/trip/fall risk that goes along with conductors and carmen walking a consist looking for leaks in a brake line, that they think it’s safer to depart the train with up to 120 CFM of flow and assume it will be able to stop when it has to.
FRA put out a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) requesting public comments on BNSF’s request, and SMART-TD’s National Legislative Department was happy to oblige them. Below you can read SMART-TD’s response to FRA from Brother Greg Hynes, SMART-TD’s national legislative director.
For months, we have been requesting your help in submitting comments to the FRA and in a record-setting demonstration of concern and support, you came through with flying colors. The FRA reports Dec. 22 that 13,090 submissions were received in their request for public comments that closed on December 21st. This outpouring of your information and personal reasons for wanting a minimum crew size of two will play a large role in the FRA’s process of determining their final ruling.
The next step in this process is for the FRA to announce its determinations. We at SMART-TD will be sure to keep you all informed as to how that process plays out. We appreciate your partnership with us in this project, and we look forward to continuing the fight as long as needed to keep our members safe and employed.
The Transportation Trades Department (TTD) of the AFL-CIO, as the umbrella organization representing all factions of rail labor, wrote the definitive submission stating our case.
The two unions representing in-cab freight personnel — SMART-TD and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) — submitted a joint statement accentuating the positions of the T&E employees in support of the NPRM. These submissions are linked below.
Once again, your activism and support are vastly appreciated. We thank you profoundly.
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) held its much-anticipated hearing Dec. 14 to receive public testimony on its Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) regarding a minimum train crew size.
As it was set up, representatives from just two Class I carriers — Union Pacific and Norfolk Southern — the Association of American Railroads (AAR) and representatives of the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA) spoke first, followed by labor representatives.
On its face, this setup seemed to work to the benefit of the testimony of labor — the SMART Transportation Division (SMART-TD), Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO (TTD).
With the viability of the conductor profession on the line before regulators — a position that the carriers continually attempted to stress in testimony that from their perspective was “outmoded” or “obsolete,” carriers put forth their argument that single-person crews and nomadic conductors would in no way worsen the already frail condition of the freight rail industry.
The Precision Scheduled Railroading playbook would call the conductor position “the largest impediment to reduced Operating Ratios on the line” that the stakes were too high not to anticipate political theater.
To that end, economists and second-tier carrier executives alike offered flimsy, speculative and hard-to-follow arguments that were highlighted by the premise that UP and NS want to take conductors off of trains in order to improve the quality of life for their conductors. They peppered in the fact that short line operators are going to have difficulty petitioning FRA for variance on these rules based on “nominal” details such as the percentage of their trackage that is on grades, the tonnage of hazardous materials they haul, and the fact that their engines aren’t equipped with alerters.
Among other arguments made by carriers were that:
A roving conductor dispatched in a truck from the crew room can get to and change a knuckle in two-thirds the time a conductor on the train could.
Company-provided cell phones would be used to fill the safety gap created by removing the conductor. (A major shift from them being biggest safety concern for operating crew distraction for the last decade and ignoring the fact that FRA law states cell phones are to be off and store out of reach.)
Having a single employee is simpler, and simpler is safer.
A second employee creates a distraction for the engineer.
The negative effects of cognitive demand placed on engineers by rail technology is speculative in nature.
And of course, Positive Train Control is the answer to all things conducting.
All of the carrier presentations neglected that FRA’s chief duty is to apply regulations when necessary in matters of safe and efficient transport of goods and passengers across the United States. Nowhere does it say that the FRA’s job is to align itself so that carriers have the easiest course to make money.
Following lunch, FRA’s board received a steady diet of facts upon hearing labor’s side of the argument. Simple to follow, devoid of the pretzel logic used by the carriers and buoyed by the reality of working on the railroad in the 21st century was given by BLET Vice President Vincent Verna, AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department President Greg Regan and SMART TD’s own President Jeremy Ferguson.
“There is no greater risk to the safety of railroad workers and the communities they serve than the consideration of a reduction in crew size in the cab of a locomotive,” Ferguson testified. “Having conductors on trains saves lives and prevents disasters in ways technology cannot. Artificial intelligence absolutely has a role to play, but it cannot replace authentic human intelligence in railroading.”
Everyone who has worked on a railroad has had a close call, one of the reasons why the bigger carriers don’t want to participate in the voluntary C3RS system. The likely outcome being that a huge flood of data would come in showing just how important the conductor is to avoiding accidents, like an engineer’s experience President Ferguson mentioned in which a conductor got a three-year-old boy off the tracks before he was struck by the locomotive.
Labor also discussed:
How “Menu Diving” in display screens keeps an engineer’s eyes off the rails.
How PTC is a safety overlay not intended to be a replacement of manpower and is inoperable at yard speeds.
How artificial Intelligence is not a substitute for authentic human intelligence when something goes wrong.
How the Railroad Technology graveyard is full of gizmos that were supposed to be “the answer”
How removing the conductor from the cab will increase blocked crossings — “the public’s No. 1 complaint”
How removing the conductor from the cab eliminates all ability of a train crew to fulfill its role as first responders in emergencies.
How advocating for conductors to remain on locomotives is advocating for avoiding unnecessary safety risks.
Single-person operations and the nomadic “expediter” model carriers are looking to pilot already have flaws that make the concept impractical on its face, Ferguson also said.
“God forbid an equipment failure occurs on the line of road without a conductor readily available to act in a moment’s notice, but especially if the train has an entire community blocked off. There is little a lone engineer can do in that situation,” Ferguson said. “I want to be realistic here. The only way that we can assure the safest course is protected during train operations is by maintaining two crewmembers in the cab of the locomotive.”
Counter to the double-talk carriers make about safety being their top priority, their business practices, ruthless cuts and a continued deterioration of service, as well as an express desire of wanting to cut even more employees, shows that the fight over crew size isn’t about better service or running a safer, more efficient railroad — it’s about the bottom line.
“The railroads have proven their willingness to make decisions that are not in the interests of safety, but rather are in the interests of profit and shareholder wealth,” Ferguson said. “Railroad safety isn’t just for the men and women working on the rails. It’s for everyday citizens that take for granted that the railroad is safe. Without a doubt, I can attest that the removal of the conductor, should it be permitted, from the cab of the locomotive will not just be catastrophic to all rail workers, it will be inimical to the American public.”
Following the testimony of Verna, Ferguson and Regan, three conductors and one BLET Auxiliary member, the spouse of an engineer, did an excellent job reinforcing the vital role conductors play in our nation’s safety and commercial viability.
The battle for two-person crews capped an important week for rail labor. Labor rallies occurred Dec. 13 in nine locations around the country, including at Capitol Hill, in conjunction with the STB hearing regarding UP embargoes and the FRA hearing to bring attention to the negative effects PSR has had on the rail labor workforce and the dangerous territory carriers have pushed the industry into.
There should be a word of caution attached to this positive attention. First, we are dealing with the federal government and Railroad Corporations, so we should absolutely be aware that just because logic is on our side, that absolutely does not ensure that we will win the day. On Dec. 14, your union leadership took the fight to the carriers and outclassed them. Now it is your turn to do the same.
The SMART Transportation Division would like to thank Johnny Walker, (Local 610, Baltimore, Md.) , Nick Jochim, (Local 904, Evansville, Ind.), Jessica Martin (Local 594, Mineola, Texas), Natalie Miller of BLET Auxiliary’s Nebraska chapter, and SMART-TD Utah State Legislative Director Dan Brewer (Local 1554, Ogden, Utah) for providing additional testimony reinforcing why two should stay on the crew.
The governor of Kansas Laura Kelly (D) recently demonstrated her support for SMART-TD members and their safety by submitting comments to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in support of a national two-person crew regulation.
“I am pleased to announce that Governor Kelly has joined our fight at the federal level,” Kansas State Legislative Director Ty Dragoo said. “We asked her to support our efforts with the proposed rulemaking by issuing comments from the state of Kansas, and she has shown once again that she is with rail labor.”
“As Governor of the state of Kansas, I directed my Department of Transportation to submit a proposed regulation requiring railroads that operate in the state to maintain a two-person crew in the controlling cab of the lead locomotive unit of each train. I believed that this was a needed step to preserve safe operation of the rail industry in Kansas. Having one person responsible for an 18,000+ ton train hauling hazardous materials jeopardizes the safety of our crews and the public at large,” Governor Kelly wrote in her comments.
Not only did Gov. Kelly write in support of two-person crews, she also cited instances of when two-person crews were necessary to protect her state during derailments and pointed out that as two persons currently operate trains on nearly all railroads in the state, no additional costs would be incurred by the regulation.
SAN FRANCISCO — Federal Railroad Administrator Amit Bose didn’t elaborate on the Rule of 2 that his agency recently put forth for the public to weigh in on, but he made it clear as he spoke on the second day of the SMART Leadership Conference that the lines of communication at his agency are open.
And comments are encouraged, he said.
“We truly appreciate your insights in keeping us informed on a daily basis of the things you see and hear, especially when reporting potentially unsafe conditions,” Bose said.
Safety inspections and audits are up at the agency, and the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on the Rule of Two, which requires a minimum of two crew members on trains, is open for public comment.
The past year and a half of work at the agency has been focused on undoing a questionable course taken under the prior administration in regard to safe rail operations, Bose said, so much of his time has been spent reorienting FRA so that safety is the end goal.
“I want you all to know that my North Star is and always will be safety. It’s about safety. The word ‘politics’ doesn’t enter into my thinking in any way in any part of my day,” Bose said. “I don’t know where politics was from January 2017 to January 2021, I can tell you that some of the decisions that the previous administration made, that word was definitely in there.”
Among the changes by Bose — a reactivation of the Rail Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC) and the resumption of safety audits of Class I carriers.
“FRA shares SMART’s commitment to make sure rail operations are safe for workers, rail passengers and the public,” he said.
Bose said that his agency has been and will remain available to hear worker concerns.
“We’ll act promptly to correct problems within FRA’s purview and, for matters that don’t, lend FRA’s voice to bring about workable solutions,” Bose said.
Transportation Division President Jeremy Ferguson thanked Administrator Bose for taking the time to appear before the union.
“He truly is pointing FRA in a good direction for our members’ safety and for a better rail system in the United States,” President Ferguson said.
It’s a shame, really, that the safety of my members, the public and the infrastructure are nothing more than political pawns in the railroads’ game of never-ending greed. And it’s a shame, frankly, that the railroads manipulate woefully inept individuals – having never meaningfully walked the ballast or performed the myriad tasks of a conductor or engineer from inside the cab of a locomotive – and contributing editors, to carry their water in the hopes of somehow creating a narrative that corporate profit (as compared to safety) is the greater good.
On Tuesday, August 2, Railway Age published an article titled “Biden Promise Fueled FRA NPRM,” wherein its author bows to his superiors’ bidding and attempts to make the case that data is in their favor. But to do so, he had to sharpshoot for supporting documentation and data, blindly whisking by the plethora of reports and studies that stand as mountains between them and reality, and he had to bend quotes and statements made as if he were some sort of deceitful, abstract performer.
Only in corporate America can a promise of maintaining the safest course be misconstrued to the public as being unethical. In fact, it seems quite ironic that the article’s author accuses this Union of being a special interest when the former FRA Administrator broke from the agency’s position and capitulated to the railroad executives’ pressure by withdrawing the ongoing crew size regulation, only to be defeated in federal court.
The rationale is sound, and the need for regulation is necessary. I find it ridiculous that the author of a book theoretically explaining the purpose and processes of the Railway Labor Act is incapable of comprehending the role of politics in the prioritization of safety and the overall welfare of America’s railroad workers.
The Many Omissions of a Man Not Actually from the Industry
Railroading is a high-risk industry. And like all other high-risk industries, teamwork is the most critical component. Over the last two decades railroads have achieved their safest and richest era because of the two-person crew. Ironically, however, is the industry’s failure to record and report its near misses. Unlike aviation, which has had a near-miss reporting system for years, the railroads have fought off FRA’s and labor’s many attempts to capture the data of accidents that didn’t occur because of the actions of a two-person crew. Had that data been collected, the truth of the safety benefits of a two-person crew could have long been made public.
Rightfully, the NPRM seeks to act where collective bargaining cannot. It is an asinine notion to consider that safety should be subject to the chopping block by way of the negotiating table. After all, the FRA’s mandate is to “enable the safe, reliable, and efficient movement of people and goods.” So why should they suggest that safety somehow be up for negotiation when the gambling of rail workers’ lives would clearly be a dereliction of duty, especially when there is no data to support it?
“Another item omitted is the fallacy of the PTC and locomotive technological systems as they exist today. Every day, our members report dozens, if not hundreds, of initial-terminal and en route failures across the nation’s rail network. Train crews have literally learned not to depend on its functionality, but rather to anticipate it dropping out.”
The Class I industry does not employ a single-person crew concept on any territory. The fact is, there is no data to support or suggest what would happen should a reduction be permitted to occur. Therefore, in the absence of data, the determination (should it happen) to remove a crew member from the cab of a locomotive equates to nothing more than risk.
The author attempts to blur that reality by comparing operations on short-line railroads and one-off situations, but he fails to present in his article that these railroads are much smaller in size, slower in on-track movements, and far less complicated than their big brother counterparts; not to mention that their train consists are vastly shorter and lighter as well.
Another item omitted is the fallacy of the PTC and locomotive technological systems as they exist today. Every day, our members report dozens, if not hundreds, of initial-terminal and en route failures across the nation’s rail network. Train crews have literally learned not to depend on its functionality, but rather to anticipate it dropping out. The author offers no viable option for this scenario, but rather pretends to portray the system as absolute, despite having no real-world knowledge. It is because of the two-person crew that this problem has not been exacerbated into catastrophe.
Likewise, PTC also does not account for the growing length of trains. In the railroads’ pursuit of the lowest operating ratio, which is nothing more than an industry-created measure to exhibit to Wall Street that a railroad can cut its way to profits, the average length of trains has grown exponentially; a concept the carriers have lovingly embraced. Unfortunately, for the communities in which these railroad properties intersect, derailments and blocked crossings have become a plague to society. By theoretically placing a conductor into a ground-based vehicle, the only known variable that will arise in these instances is that the conductor will most likely not be in place to act in an emergency, much less with any urgency. As it stands, a conductor is readily available on the locomotive to act as a first responder at a moment’s notice. A routine that has been proven time and time again.
“To be blunt, this nation’s regulatory agencies should not allow corporate entities to self-regulate, as their bottom line obscures the purpose and promise of their mission to keep their employees’ work environment safe.”
However, should a railroad desire to veer from the safest course, it may attempt to do so through the proposed rule’s waiver process, which the author, trying to charm his influencers, portrays as an unfair level of scrutiny and rigged process. His words, which are nothing more than an amplification of the railroads’, reek of similarities to Boeing’s cries to the FAA years before the 737 Max accidents.
To be blunt, this nation’s regulatory agencies should not allow corporate entities to self-regulate, as their bottom line obscures the purpose and promise of their mission to keep their employees’ work environment safe. Like eyes following the bouncing ball of karaoke lyrics, rail carriers have proven their willingness to abruptly reverse course in capitulation to outside pressures originating from their hedge fund investors. It is because of this that the NPRM’s waiver process is necessary, and is exactly why it must be transparent, rigorous and thorough.
Common sense safety provisions do not stymie or impede future innovation, they protect it, and any assertion to the contrary is absurd. The railroads, like aviation, have realized their greatest advancements in technology with a crew of two at the controls. Now, they want you to believe that the industry that could afford more than $10 billion in stock buybacks last year alone would somehow be hampered by a regulation such as this.
Rest assured, nothing could be further from the truth. And rest assured that it does not require a single-person crew to provide a better quality of life. There is absolutely nothing preventing America’s rail carriers from providing its workforce with predictable work schedules, more time at home, increased authority, larger rates of pay and protection against furlough. Yet here we are: three and a half years at the negotiating table and forced to a Presidential Emergency Board because the carriers are unwilling to negotiate the very terms described within the author’s article. Let me be clear, quality of life is not a bargaining chip to be used as blackmail against the safety of my members, especially when the carriers have the means and funds to grant it.
The Mystery Argument of Data, Despite the Absence of Actual or Comparable Data
A railroad is not a railroad, but a spade is a spade. As stated earlier, there are no Class I railroad over-the-road single-person crew operations in this nation, and a Class I in comparison to a commuter, Class II or any other designation does not a good argument make.
This country’s railroad network is unlike any other in the world. On average, according to Operation Lifesaver, there is a collision between a train and a person or vehicle every three hours. Astonishingly, there is no process to record and/or report the near-misses that didn’t occur because of the actions of a two-person crew. As a result, it is unknown just how great of an effect a reduction in crew size could have toward an unwanted increase in these types of accidents. This is important because other foreign countries, as the author referenced as being relevant, do not have the same exposures to the public that we do. Their success, if you will, does not equate to our success, as it may very well result in the detriment to our communities.
Additionally, foreign freight trains are much smaller by comparison. According to a FreightWaves article published April 3, 2019, (U.S. and European freight railroads are on different tracks), “… [U.S.] freight trains are often 3,500 meters (2.175 miles) in length; in western Europe, freight train lengths are closer to 750 meters (less than one-half mile).” Simple physics will tell you that fewer rail cars and lighter tonnage will result in fewer mechanical failures, and the ability to stop in less time and drastically shorter distances. Common sense will also tell you that shorter trains result in fewer blocked crossings.
FRA’s January 2020 Final Report, Teamwork in Railroad Operations and Implications for New Technology, states that “[c]onductors also provide several additional cognitive support functions to locomotive engineers that PTC does not provide. These functions include supporting locomotive engineers in monitoring events outside the cab window for potential obstacles and hazards that would not be detected by automated systems (e.g., people working on or around the track; trespasser; cars at grade crossings). They also include filling knowledge gaps that locomotive engineers may have (e.g., knowledge of the territory; appropriate interpretation of operating rules) and supporting decision-making (e.g., where to stop to avoid blocking a grade crossing). Knowledge and decision-making support is especially important in the case of less experienced locomotive engineers. Conductors also serve an important role in handling unanticipated events and keeping the locomotive engineer alert, especially on long monotonous trips where there is a risk of falling asleep.”
“The mass exodus of workers in today’s railroad industry will have a long-term, adverse effect on the knowledge and skill base of conductors and engineers. Experience cannot be taught in a classroom. It takes years for these workers to hone their craft.”
The Class I railroads are currently hemorrhaging experienced, mid-career locomotive engineers and conductors. This has had a devastating impact on the supply chain, and this will have a devastating impact on long-term viability. It is no surprise to us that America’s rail shippers have taken to the Surface Transportation Board and the media to speak out against the railroads’ greed and inability to provide a quality service.
But this is particularly important, however, considering what the FRA’s report had to say above – “[conductors] fill knowledge gaps that locomotive engineers may have and [they] support decision making.” The mass exodus of workers in today’s railroad industry will have a long-term, adverse effect on the knowledge and skill base of conductors and engineers. Experience cannot be taught in a classroom. It takes years for these workers to hone their craft. PTC does not and cannot account for that, nor can the locomotive’s energy management systems. Only can the cognitive and collaborative efforts of teamwork overcome a hurdle as large as this.
Yet, in spite of all this, the Class I railroads are actively pursuing the ability to fast-track single-person crew operations without having vetted or tested a single proven or reliable method of operation, because this is just about the only card they have left to play to lower their operating ratios and to perform one last-ditch act for their audience of demanding shareholders. Like puppets on a string, they are succumbing to outside, misguided pressures.
That is why this regulation is needed, and that is why it’s needed with urgency.
As to the author’s rambling of data-to-come – the condemnatory flaw can only be found in his rant. FRA’s purpose is to prevent unsafe conditions from occurring. By his own admission, the collection of credible data is still being developed. But rather than wait for confirmation, the author proclaims that the agency should throw caution to the wind, like chance in the game of Risk, and allow the railroads to continue their current crew-reduction trajectory, despite, once again, not having any data to support his position. At least with a two-person crew, we know that the safest era in railroading history has been achieved. That is one data point that cannot be manipulated. And that is one data point worthy of protecting.
Similarly, and as stated before, the two-person crew has brought about the richest era in Class I railroading history. The Unions are proud of this fact, and we acknowledge that this is a direct representation of our members’ work. So, it is a slap in the face for the author to try so obtusely to make the argument that the railroads would somehow see a negative economic impact when all of the history and data points to the contrary. Ironically, former FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo is criticized in the article for “limit[ing] research to just those sources you want to hear from.” Perhaps the man who wrote these words should take a look in the mirror.
The Safest Way
Without question, the author of the Railway Age article has wonderfully performed like a jester for his majesty’s court. But in the end, it’s nothing more than a shame that he is willing to dance for the railroads as they fill their pockets and turn a deaf ear to my members as they cry out for help.
We do however agree with the author’s statement that our predecessor organization did support PTC in the initial stages. We had members that were a part of the FRA RSAC committee tasked with the development and implementation of PTC. During these jointly-held meetings between the FRA, Rail carriers and union craft members, the carriers stated that PTC was a safety overlay system and not a conduit to replace the conductor. Repeatedly they stated PTC’s implementation was to enhance safety in an attempt to eliminate, as much as possible, human error. As the safety of our members is paramount, we supported and embraced this technology. Our position did not change until the carriers, in an attempt to find a way to lessen the financial burden of PTC, used their handpicked FRA Administrator, an ex-Rail Carrier CEO, to reverse course and state that PTC could now overcome many known faults and shortcomings and miraculously replace the conductor.
“…the carriers stated that PTC was a safety overlay system and not a conduit to replace the conductor. Repeatedly they stated PTC’s implementation was to enhance safety in an attempt to eliminate, as much as possible, human error.”
However, that is where the author’s accuracy ends, and like most things he has written, the author is wrong. PTC does not take the place of a conductor and it does not support the engineer. If anything, it increases the task load. If the carriers would have followed the RSAC committees’ recommendations and placed an operating PTC screen and controls on the conductor’s side of the locomotive, it would have reduced the current task overload that has greatly stricken the vast majority of engineers. PTC is extremely user intensive, requiring constant input and manipulation, and it prevents an engineer from being able to observe his/her territory. Since the advent of PTC and its subsequent implementation, the importance of the conductor’s role within the cab of a locomotive has never been greater. It was determined that the conductor could verify mandatory directives, handle safety-related tasks such as work authorities and confirm PTC alerts in conjunction with the engineer.
Every single day an accident is prevented because of the actions of a conductor, and every single day that data is not collected. In some cases, it may have been by utilizing the emergency brake that is located on the conductor’s side of the locomotive, again correcting the author’s error by stating that there are no controls on that side of the locomotive.
In the end, it all comes down to two outcomes. Is the FRA best served protecting and maintaining a crew size that is known to be safe; that is known to be the best model for customer service; that is known to have made the railroads more money than ever; and is known to have a process via the regulation (should it occur) to have a means and method of allowing for the safe and controlled testing of different crew sizes? Or is it best served to risk chance and see what happens with a reduction in crew size that has no measurable baseline for safety; that has no baseline for profit; and has no baseline for customer service?
Obviously, there is only one outcome for which FRA has the legal authority and obligation to act.
As has been said throughout history, the truth will always be brought to light. And you, too, can look that up.
The SMART Transportation Division is comprised of approximately 125,000 active and retired members of the former United Transportation Union, who work in a variety of different crafts, including as bus and commuter rail operators, in the transportation industry.
FRA is seeking a hazardous materials railroad safety inspector to be based out of Baton Rouge, La.
The position requires that the candidate:
Plans and carries out periodic inspections at rail hazardous materials shipper/consignee locations including oil & gas refineries/fractionation plants, chemical and explosives manufacturers, rail intermodal terminals/van yards, freight forwarders, import/export agents and tank car manufacturing and repair facilities within their district and neighboring districts when called upon to conduct team inspections.
Inspects railroads for compliance with the hazardous materials regulations and assists in training railroad personnel to enhance compliance with federal regulations.
Conducts railroad accident investigations including train and/or railcar collisions, reportable derailments, Non-Accidental Releases (NAR) of hazardous materials, or other accidents/incidents resulting in serious injury to person(s) or to the property of a railroad occurring on the line of any common carrier engaged in interstate transportation.
Conducts in-depth Hazardous Materials Incident Investigations (HMII) to determine the root cause of an incident and the corrective and preventative actions that will prevent recurrence.
As we enter this new year, it is important to reflect on where we have been, what challenges we have faced and what accomplishments we have made together. I am excited about our future and can say, with certainty, we are more prepared now than ever to face it head-on, with the best interests of our fellow brothers and sisters at the forefront.
While the last few years have had their share of trials, I am confident better days are ahead.
Amit Bose, President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the Federal Railroad Administration, was confirmed Jan. 12 after a long wait. His ascension is one more step toward a common-sense regulation of freight rail crew size with safety, not profits, in mind. TD leadership looks ahead with great anticipation as we continue building the relationship we have established with him and the federal Department of Transportation.
I am also pleased to note that the Biden administration nominee for the vacant position on the National Mediation Board, Deidre Hamilton, was installed. This creates a 2-to-1 Democratic majority and a much more labor-friendly board than what we have had to deal with the last four years. This confirmation likely spurred NMB to work on the logjam of requested representation elections ignored by the previous administration. Our Organizing Department has six cases filed and reported that ballots are out on five. We are hopeful we’ll be able to welcome these properties into the SMART family soon.
I hear you loud and clear that better working conditions (removing bad attendance policies and getting better quality of life) are at the top of your list of things that need fixed as soon as possible.
Of course, NMB will play a key role as we, along with the other Coordinated Bargaining Coalition unions, announced in late January that national rail contract discussions had reached an impasse. They will select a mediator whom we hope will move negotiations past the past two years’ worth of insulting offers that the carriers have presented and into a truly constructive and realistic phase. Our members deserve nothing less after moving America’s freight during this pandemic. I hear you loud and clear that better working conditions (removing bad attendance policies and getting better quality of life) are at the top of your list of things that need fixed as soon as possible. That is why we challenged BNSF’s draconian and punitive Hi Viz attendance policy. We will stand up to mistreatment of our members, especially when carriers continue to crow about record profits.
The last couple of years have seen membership numbers drastically decline, but I am thrilled to announce we have a new local, 1706, opening up in the Kansas City area for approximately 200 new members working for Student Transportation of America. Vice President Calvin Studivant has been working closely with these new members and has completed their first fully ratified agreement. Congratulations to our new bus members, and welcome!
I have been fortunate to be invited and to attend a number of union meetings, Labor Day events and holiday cookouts recently. This allowed me the opportunity to openly talk with the membership and update them on the state of our UNION. I am looking forward to many more of these face-to-face meetings in 2022. I hear you loud and clear that better working conditions (removing bad attendance policies and getting better quality of life) are at the top of your list of things that need fixed as soon as possible.
It has been frustrating that we have not had our normal annual regional meetings the last two years, but I must say that I am proud of a number of our state legislative directors and general chairpersons who stepped up and took matters into their own hands. They organized “Regional Training Seminars” that consist of a variety of training and classes for local officers. I was honored to be asked to address the groups and spend time with those in attendance. SMART-TD provided a number of the facilitators and additional support and that, along with the hard work of the aforementioned SLDs and GCs, made all of them huge successes.
These have been so impactful that we are planning on additional seminars to be scheduled next year. If this is something you have an interest in attending, please let your SLD or GC know. I look forward to seeing more of you in the coming year at these meetings!
“Solidarity” is a word we throw around a lot, but it is always an adrenaline rush when you see it in action. I was excited to be invited and participate in a huge rally in Chicago in November to assist the Metra Passenger Rail Coalition. All Metra crafts were fighting for a good contract after being faced with what seemed to be never-ending mediation. VP Jamie Modesitt, Alternate National Legislative Director Jared Cassity and I didn’t need to be asked twice by GC Chip Waugh if we wanted in. The big blow-up rat and bullhorns blaring with the Chicago PD out to keep the crowd under control was exhilarating to say the least. We had local and state legislators and U.S. Reps. Chuy Garcia and Marie Newman show up to lend their support. It was yet another example of what organized labor can accomplish — together!
Your union also is continuing to get things done. We added many more features to the SMART app, making it more of a vital resource and advancing our technological presence. We’ve been able to adapt to a new way of leadership training with regional training seminars and coming soon our virtual educational efforts with SMART University. We are also developing a new website that will be more interactive, to name but a few.
There’s a lot going on and a lot more to come. I am excited and proud to be on this journey with you.
In closing, I ask that you do everything in your power to keep yourself and your fellow sisters and brothers safe on the job. Safety is a gift we give our families each and every day.