Freight rail safety was the focus of the March 2023 episode of the Talking SMART podcast. SMART-TD Alternate National Legislative Director Jared Cassity and SMART-TD Government Affairs Rep. Daniel Banks joined the podcast to discuss the fight to improve freight rail safety at both the state and federal levels in the weeks following the disaster in East Palestine, Ohio.
The East Palestine derailment and other well-publicized accidents since have made clear what SMART-TD and rail labor have been saying for years: So-called “Precision Scheduled Railroading” is bad for workers, the public and the environment.
“It speaks to the seriousness of the devastation that has been done to the railroad industry since the implementation of Precision Scheduled Railroading, and it speaks to the fact that our predictions are now coming into fruition. And it’s both a shame and a frustration, and – to be quite frank – a very anger-filled reaction for us,” Cassity said. “It’s shocking to see all these derailments take place. … All of these things can be brought back to Precision Scheduled Railroading and what it’s done.”
“We need to act in solidarity” on freight rail safety
Both Cassity and Banks emphasized the importance of pushing for freight rail safety regulation across the country. Federal legislation like the bipartisan Railway Safety Act of 2023 has already been introduced, along with bills in states across the country. Now, both guests said, SMART members, families and allies need to get involved and make sure the railroads and elected officials feel the pressure.
“We need the action. Today’s the day, and we need to capture the momentum – we need to act in solidarity,” Banks said, adding that members can get involved by texting “Rail Safety” to 67336 (message and data rates may apply).
“When it comes to combatting the railroads, what we need is membership engagement, membership interest, membership participation,” Cassity explained. “We need the members to win this fight … we have got to have the membership speaking, because they’re the constituents, they’re the influencers. The union is the voice of many, but we need the many voices to be speaking as one.”
At the end of this episode, SMART General President Joseph Sellers discussed what SMART is doing to recruit nonunion sheet metal workers and meet the workforce needs presented by megaprojects, infrastructure investment and more. Listen to the full episode here, or wherever you get your podcasts.
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.
Transportation Division Pennsylvania State Legislative Director Paul Pokrowka had a meeting with Pennsylvania House of Representatives Transportation Committee Chairperson John Taylor (R-Dist. 177) Feb. 25 seeking his support of a two-person rail crew law in the state. Taylor pledged his support and said he would draft the two-person crew bill. Pokrowka asks that SMART members in the state contact Taylor to thank him for his support and ask him to keep his promise to draft the bill. “Because Rep. Taylor is the chairperson of the Transportation Committee, any member in the state can contact him,” Pokrowka said. “You do not need to be a resident of his district.” Members can reach Rep. Taylor by calling him at (717) 787-3179 or writing him at 214 Ryan Office Building, P.O. Box 202177, Harrisburg, PA 17120-2177. Members can also contact Rep. Taylor by visiting his website at www.reptaylor.com/Contact.aspx.
CLEVELAND — The Transportation Division of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation International Association (SMART) and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET/IBT) have jointly announced that legislation requiring at least two crew members on all freight trains in the U.S. has been filed in Congress.
Initial sponsors for H.R. 3040 are U.S. Reps. Michael Michaud (D-Maine) and Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and the bill is expected to be assigned to the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee for consideration.
The legislation reflects heightened concerns over crew size arising from the tragic July 6 derailment of a Montreal, Maine & Atlantic (MM&A) fuel train in Lac Mégantic, Quebec, which killed 47 and destroyed the center of the town. The MM&A train was crewed by a single person.
BLET National President Dennis R. Pierce called on the House to take up the bill at its earliest opportunity. “The American people are justifiably concerned that the single-person crewing practice used on M&MA and some other short line railroads places the public safety at risk,” Pierce said. “We urge Chairman Schuster and the T&I Committee to hold hearings on this issue after the recess.”
SMART Transportation Division President Mike Futhey said, “This is a responsible piece of legislation that recognizes the correlations between the consist of crews and public safety. We thank Reps. Michaud and Pingree and urge more representatives to join in support.”
OTTAWA — Transport Canada July 23 announced an emergency directive pursuant to section 33 of the Railway Safety Act to increase rail safety, banning one-man crews on trains hauling one or more cars loaded with hazardous materials.
Although the cause of the accident in Lac-Mégantic remains unknown at this time, Transport Canada is moving forward to build upon the safety advisories received last Friday from the Transportation Safety Board and further enhance existing safe railway operations and the security of railway transportation.
Effective immediately, the emergency directive requires all rail operators to:
Ensure that no locomotive attached to one or more loaded tank cars transporting dangerous goods is operated with fewer than two qualified persons on a main track or sidings;
Ensure that no locomotive attached to one or more loaded tank cars transporting dangerous goods is left unattended on a main track;
Ensure, within five days of the issuance of the directive, that all unattended controlling locomotives on a main track and sidings are protected from unauthorized entry into the cab;
Ensure the directional controls, commonly known as reversers, are removed from any unattended locomotives, preventing them from moving forward or backward, on a main track or sidings;
Ensure that their company’s special instructions on hand brakes are applied to any locomotive attached to one or more cars that is left unattended for more than one hour on a main track or sidings;
Ensure that, in addition to complying with their company’s special instructions on hand brakes referred to in the item immediately above, the automatic brake is set in full service position and the independent brake is fully applied for any locomotive attached to one or more cars that are left unattended for one hour or less on a main track or sidings.
The safety of Canadians is Transport Canada’s top priority. The department is committed to working with the rail industry to examining any other means of improving rail safety.
Transport Canada has been in contact with the railway industry, and in particular with CN, CP and the Railway Association of Canada (RAC), to work together to promote the continued safety of Canada’s rail system.
The majority of railways maintain a culture of safety and security, as shown by the notable decline in derailments and train accidents over the past few years.
Transport Canada inspectors will continue to work in cooperation with the Transportation Safety Board as it conducts its investigation.
Transport Canada inspectors are at Lac-Mégantic determining whether there has been non-compliance with regulatory requirements.
Railway safety regulations exist to ensure the safety and protection of the public. If these regulations were not followed, the department will not hesitate to take action.
Transport Canada is responsible for transportation policies and programs. It promotes safe, secure, efficient and environmentally-responsible transportation. Transport Canada reports to Parliament and Canadians through the minister of Transport. It works with its portfolio partners, other government departments and jurisdictions, and industry to ensure that all parts of Canada’s transportation system work well.
The complete release, along with Related Items, can be found here.