On August 28, the Norfolk Southern rail network’s technological infrastructure failed.

Crews couldn’t print off their pre-departure paperwork at the terminals. No one was able to report their hours of service. Many were unable to verify the consists of their trains. Emails weren’t able to be sent within the organization to organize a crisis/recovery plan, and even the crew callers were rendered useless, (insert your joke here).

However, the most dangerous side of this situation came into play when these computer issues left the crew rooms, call centers and corporate offices and made their way to the rails themselves. Dispatchers lost all control of their systems, as switches and signals were not aligning with each other or the controls of the dispatchers. Even Positive Train Control (PTC) was rendered inoperable.

It is too early to know with any degree of certainty what the cause of this systematic failure was. Unverifiable rumors have emerged on the internet, and it would be irresponsible of us to delve into them.

What we do know is that this event goes a long way to highlight the absolute necessity of the human element in railroading. As we all know, the carriers are more than happy to point out the alleged advantages of all the technology “improvements” they are bringing to the industry. If they are to be believed, their investments in computer systems have rendered our skills as railroad professionals to be nothing but a backup safety redundancy. And let’s all keep in mind they are doing everything in their power to reduce and eliminate the need for even that function, fighting tooth-and-nail against the establishment of a two-person minimum crew size in the Railway Safety Act of 2023.

Monday’s events point out that the railroads’ position couldn’t be further from reality. When the excrement hit the proverbial fan, it was the skills and professionalism of our SMART-TD conductors and engineers that prevented what had the potential to be the most widespread industrial calamity in the history of the nation. Yesterday, all the technology meant to eliminate the need for railroad professionals failed — simultaneously. As far as SMART-TD knows as of Tuesday morning, this incident was handled by our men and women without a single injury, derailment, grade-crossing collision or red signal violation.

The ramifications of this incident are terrifying, but the results are to be celebrated. It shows the world that technology is not always the end-all, be-all answer in transportation or any heavy industry. Technology failed catastrophically, putting the lives and well beings of all our NS brothers and sisters in jeopardy, and at the same time presented a massive potential threat to each and every community east of the Mississippi River with a NS track running through it.

On the flip side of that same coin, the people came through. Our members and everyone aboard an NS train proved without a doubt to be an amazing asset to these communities. The potential for disaster these crews defused is an outstanding testament to their value and the quality of work they show in their craft.

SMART-TD sees what you do every day, and you are always appreciated, but in the face of adversity yesterday you were a credit to yourselves, to our craft and to all working people. We applaud your focus, attention to safety and your well-honed railroading instincts. You should know that we will not allow NS or any other railroad to forget the lessons learned Aug. 28, 2023. Avoiding what could have been a major catastrophe will go a long way toward proving the value of conductors and engineers in every dispute we have with the corporations or government regulators for quite some time.

SMART-TD thanks you and will be updating you with any new info on the cause of yesterday’s events.  

If any SMART members who work for NS have information on yesterday’s events or have details of their personal experience that might help SMART better represent our members, please reach out to our Government Affairs Department by emailing dbanks@smart-union.org.

A confusing scenario has played out in the Midwest this week involving the Union Pacific Railroad and its intention to create a new position in Kansas and Nebraska.

The truth of the matter is that UP is creating new positions; however, the positions being created are in addition to their current road and yard crews, not as a replacement for road conductors.

These utility positions will have the ability to assist road crews in addition to the standard utility role of working within yards. The utility jobs pay well and are additional scheduled positions that are not replacing the role of the traditional conductor on road trains.

The Associated Press (AP) ran a headline this week stating these utility jobs were the enactment of the UP’s now-infamous nomadic “Expediter” position which was the plan they made public last December before FRA to take conductors off road trains. Ironically, the recent article the AP ran was based on comments made by a member of UP management at a hearing in Topeka, Kansas that was making the state’s 2PC regulation the law throughout Kansas.

With this as the backdrop, it is difficult to understand how some have interpreted the statement of the executive as an announcement that UP was ready to come out of the world of poorly made YouTube videos and into the reality of American railroading and that the union had suddenly changed its position on a minimum crew size, but that is apparently what happened in some’s minds.

UP officer Jason Pinder’s imprecise statements during Monday’s public hearing on the Kansas Administrative Regulation that finalized our union’s successful efforts to bring 2PC to Kansas caused all this. Coverage of Pinder’s take on the new utility positions reasonably made railroaders in the region ask themselves the question, “Who do I trust the least, rail executives, or the media?” The answer is that you should check the sources for both!

Luckily for all involved and for accuracy’s sake, SMART-TD was well-represented at this hearing and is able to give first-hand details of what went on from not only Kansas State Legislative Director Ty Dragoo, but also Luke Edington, general chairperson of GO-953, who negotiated the UP crew-consist agreement for SMART-TD. These two leaders are intimately aware of what UP can and cannot do with these new utility workers. They are among the men who put in the time and effort to guarantee UP cannot, under any circumstances, remove conductors from the cab of the locomotive.

Brother Edington took the quotes from Pinder personally and did not appreciate the confusion the words of the ill-informed “railroader” caused for his members. Responding to what the AP published, Edington fired off a letter to UP’s CEO Lance Fritz. In his correspondence, Brother Edington pointed out that this new utility position “may only assist Conductors and Foreman with duties.” He added that his office has “not agreed to a ‘pilot program’ for redeploying conductors as Mr. Pinder alleges.”

Edington wants it to be clear to all involved, including Lance Fritz, that SMART-TD agreed to expand the utility assignment so it could assist road conductors as well as conductors and foremen on local and yard assignments. We stand firm and continue to maintain that two on the crew is the safest course of operations. We did not and will not agree to give away our members’ jobs!

See below the letter GC Edington sent to Fritz.

The Rebuilding American Values action group in collaboration with the SMART Transportation Division Pennsylvania State Legislative Board has put its resources forth to support rail safety legislation being considered in the Pa. Senate.

The result is a radio ad being broadcast on Harrisburg-area radio stations 104.1 WNNK-FM 104.1, WQXA-FM 105.7 and WHP-AM 580 through the week of June 26 while the Senate is in session.

H.B. 1028 passed the state House on June 5 by a strong bipartisan 141-62 vote and moved on to the state Senate. It takes the following measures:

  • Fines carriers $10,000 for blocking rail crossings for more than five minutes.
  • Limits train lengths to 8,500 feet.
  • Permits rail labor representatives to have an active, participatory role while the state investigates rail safety matters.
  • Requires a two-person crew aboard freight trains and fines carriers who violate the provision.
  • Authorizes the state to inspect to ensure the functionality of wayside detectors in the state.
  • Authorizes a state study of hazmat/waste transport.
  • Creates a reporting system when carriers operating trains carrying hazmat/waste report these to the state.

SMART Transportation Division Pennsylvania State Legislative Director Paul Pokrowka has been a driving advocate for the safety bill with railroad operations and safety becoming a major focus for the public and in the media since the East Palestine, Ohio, derailment in February.

“We’re working to get the message out because the carriers have a number of allies in the Senate,” he said. “They would like nothing more than to see this bill die on the vine and to persist with the status quo. Thanks to Rebuilding American Values for taking up the cause and helping to get the facts out to the public and to the senators.”

Many of us think of the SMART-TD’s Designated Legal Counsel as “The FELA guys” who come to our Local meetings.  Members in Minnesota learned DLC does a lot more for our organization.

The recent two-person crew victory in the state didn’t magically happen. It took many people and many years to pull, push, and drag it over the finish line, says SMART-TD Minnesota State Legislative Director Nick Katich.

And Designated Legal Counsel law firm Hunegs, LeNeave, and Kvas played a major part by stepping up and making a major contribution, he said.

“We got our bills through House and Senate Transportation committees and the next stops were in Judiciary,” Katich said. “While railroaders can speak to why a two-person crew is necessary, it takes a lawyer to testify before Judiciary and be able to cite case law off the cuff.”

HLK had a representative who, in two separate hearings, volunteered his time, talent and vocation to the betterment of rail labor and a successful outcome for the bill.

“I fear we would not have made it out of committee,” said Katich.  “We all owe a debt of gratitude.”

Please thank your DLC for all they do to support our Union, workplace safety, and worker rights.

SMART-TD Minnesota State Legislative Director (SLD) Nick Katich along with the Minnesota State Legislative Board are proud to announce that the morning of May 24, Gov. Tim Walz has signed HF 2887, and a two-person crew minimum for freight trains is now officially the law of the land in the state. 

The massive transportation omnibus bill was passed by the state Legislature May 21st and, along with the minimum crew size provision mandating a crew of two, has infrastructure dollars to bring many more railroad jobs in passenger service to Minnesota.

“The Minnesota Legislative Board began working on minimum crew size in 2015,” Katich said. “At that time, Phil Qualy was director, and I was his assistant. We passed it in the House once and the Senate once, but never together.” Katich was elected in May 2020 after Qualy’s retirement and continued the fight.

The 2023 legislative session in Minnesota has been very fast-paced and intense. Minimum crew size began as its own bill in the Senate with a companion in the House. It was heard and passed through all committees with the railroads very actively opposing it.

“It was difficult when the railroads were testifying to keep a straight face,” commented Katich. “Some of their claims were so false or misleading it would make you sick. Our job was to help the lawmakers see through the smokescreen and we did just that.”

While the stand-alone bills made it back to the floor of both chambers, time was running out to act on them individually, so the decision was made to include the policy in the omnibus bill.

“Our motto with this legislature has been ‘Take yes for an answer,’” Katich said. “Whatever keeps us moving forward.”

In addition to minimum crew size, rail labor chalked up some other wins too. The Northern Lights Express, Amtrak’s passenger service between Duluth and Minneapolis, has been fully funded at $194.7 million. This allows access to matching funds from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and means more work opportunities for our members. Two more state rail safety inspectors, additional funding for passenger rail corridor studies and railroad-provided first responder training are also included.

“We all need to thank our bill’s chief authors, Sen. Jen McEwen (Dist. 8) and Rep. Jeff Brand (Dist. 18A), as well as Transportation Committee Chairs Sen. Scott Dibble (Dist. 61) and Rep. Frank Hornstein (Dist. 61A) for guiding our legislation over the finish line. Their fierce advocacy for rail labor will not be forgotten.

“I would like to personally thank the Minnesota Legislative Board for their unwavering support and confidence, the local officers who volunteered to pitch in, and the members and retirees for keeping track and sending encouragement. I would also add that I would like to thank our friends in the Minnesota AFL-CIO. They had our backs and watched for the railroad lobbyists lurking around where they shouldn’t be.”

Minnesota becomes the third state this year to require two on a crew, following Ohio and Kansas.

SMART-TD would like to congratulate SLD Katich and his team on a job very well done, and we would like to point out that this is the first year of this biennium and we are all excited to see what comes out of year two!

Looking to follow in the footsteps of Ohio, Pennsylvania’s Legislature has before it a comprehensive rail safety bill covering train length, two-person crews and wayside detectors.

H.B. 1028 was introduced by 24 representatives April 25 with the House Consumer Protection, Technologies and Utilities Committee scheduled to vote upon the bill on Wednesday, May 3.

Chairman Robert F. Matzie (District 16) was the primary sponsor, which has, among its provisions:

  • Fines carriers $10,000 for blocking rail crossings for more than five minutes.
  • Limits train lengths to 8,500 feet.
  • Permits rail labor representatives to have an active, participatory role while the state investigates rail safety matters.
  • Requires a two-person aboard freight trains and fines carriers who violate the provision.
  • Authorizes the state to inspect to ensure the functionality of wayside detectors in the state.
  • Authorizes a state study of hazmat/waste transport.
  • Create a reporting system when carriers operating trains carrying hazmat/waste report these to the state.

SMART Transportation Division Pennsylvania State Legislative Director Paul Pokrowka has been working for years to advocate for rail safety and get legislation across the finish line.

“The incident February just across the border from our state in East Palestine brought attention nationwide to the importance of railroad safety,” he said. “Legislators in Pennsylvania have taken notice and have decided to do something about it. We appreciate their support and look to advance this legislation out of committee and into the full House and beyond — we thank Rep. Matzie and his staff very much for their help in advocating for H.B. 1028.”

Read the bill.

State Senate has rail safety bills regarding two-person crews and train length before it

Michigan State Legislative Director Donald Roach served as a primary source as The Detroit News published articles this week (subscription required to read) centering on two pieces of rail safety legislation in the state Legislature.

Michigan State Legislative Director Don Roach
Donald Roach

After reviewing the circumstance of derailments and details of recent rail accidents in the state, the piece highlighted the renewed focus on the need to examine freight rail safety in the wake of the East Palestine, Ohio, derailment.

S.B. 100 would codify the long-standing standard and safe rail practice of requiring two operating crew members aboard a train. S.B. 139 places a-length limit of 7,500 feet on trains.

“Any time if there’s an incident along the rail, whether it be a pedestrian strike, or a car in a crossing, or there’s trespassers along the way, the conductors are always the first responders,” Roach told the Detroit News. “… They could be walking back to a fire. They could be walking back to just a set of wheels on the ground. It could be anything.”

State Sen. Erica Geiss, who introduced both the train-length and crew-size legislation, told the Detroit News that she expected the state Transportation Committee to consider these bills this spring.

Neighboring Ohio passed and saw a two-person crew signed into law at the end of March.

SMART-TD, behind the leadership of National Legislative Director Greg Hynes and Alternate National Legislative Director Jared Cassity, have unprecedented positive momentum in the halls of state legislatures across the country. Our legislative directors currently have bills in front of 17 state legislatures and many are showing signs of being successful. SMART-TD is very proud of the progress that the SLDs are making in all of these states and would like to share some of the highlights.

· Washington HB 1839 — SLD Herb Krohn’s train-length bill is scheduled for a vote in the Washington House Transportation Committee at noon Feb. 23.

· Arizona HB 2531—SLD Robert Jones has a train length bill limiting trains to 8,500 feet. It was passed through committee and is heading to the floor of the Arizona House.

· Arizona HB 2531—SLD Robert Jones has a train length bill limiting trains to 8,500 feet. It was passed through committee and is heading to the floor of the Arizona House.

· Iowa SF 184 —SLD Chris Smith has a train length bill limiting trains to 8,500 feet. It has been passed through committee in the Iowa Senate and is heading to the Senate floor.

· New Mexico HB 105—SLD Don Gallegos has a two-person crew bill that passed the floor of the New Mexico House of Representatives and is heading to the Senate.

· Minnesota SF 1417—SLD Nicholas Katich has a two-person crew bill that is currently in committee.

· Ohio HB 23—SLD Clyde Whitaker has a two-person crew bill that includes provisions for regulating adherence to wayside defect detectors that is currently in committee.

In the 17 states where SMART-TD’s legislative team is pushing legislation in this cycle, we have 49 combined bills currently in play. These pieces of legislation have the potential to bring about a tremendous amount of progress in our industry and make your day-to-day lives better while holding rail carriers accountable. Your support is needed!

SMART-TD asks that you become involved in these legislative actions. Please visit the Take Action tab of SMART’s website and look at what bills are being pushed in your state. Letters, phone calls, and emails supporting the bills involving our industry go a long way towards realizing their success. We encourage you to advocate for yourselves and your brothers and sisters in your crew base.

The SMART Transportation Division would like to thank all of you for your historic response to the FRA’s Notice of Public Rulemaking (NPRM) on Freight Train Crew Size. In the moment when our livelihood and the safety of all involved was on the line, SMART members, along with their friends and families, answered the bell in a profound way.

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.

AFL-CIO TTD statement

SMART-TD/BLET statement

Class I railroad carriers BNSF and NS declared an impasse this week in the mandatory bargaining over crew size under Section 6 of the Railway Labor Act (RLA). In declaring an impasse, the two railroads, represented by the National Railway Labor Conference (NRLC), seek federal mediation as required by the RLA. Union Pacific Railroad is not seeking mediation at this time.

Beginning in October 2019, most Class I carriers served notice under Section 6 of the RLA to force the SMART Transportation Division to bargain over crew size. Today crew size is determined by collective bargaining agreements implemented by Presidential Emergency Board 219 under then-President George H.W. Bush.

SMART-TD and the involved General Committees intend to continue to demonstrate the significant problems with the carriers’ plans and the current technology that carriers believe allows for a redeployment of conductors to ground-based positions.

SMART-TD General Committees and union leadership will continue to fight to protect the jobs of today as well as the jobs of the future and to ensure protection for SMART-TD members.

In the current episode of Talking SMART, we sit down with SMART TD President Jeremy Ferguson to talk about a subject that is foremost on the minds of many members. In February 2022, BNSF arbitrarily changed its attendance policy and took advantage of a pro-management judge to force (as of now… this episode was recorded in early March), a draconian “Hi-Viz” attendance policy upon the very members who have kept the company operational through the pandemic – and who earned BNSF record profits in 2021. President Ferguson also provides an update on contract negotiations with the national rail carriers.