Despite Toxic Disaster, Railroads Still Want Individual Crews

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The country’s main freight railroads have long wanted to have just one crew member, a lone driver, in the cab of their locomotives. And that desire hasn’t changed, despite the February 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern train that released toxic chemicals into the air, water and soil of East Palestine, Ohio, which is still being cleaned up.

But that accident may well have ended the railroad’s chances of achieving that one-person crew goal.

The rail safety legislation, introduced in Congress on Wednesday with bipartisan support, would include a ban on individual crews. There is no such federal law or regulation that requires an engineer and conductor to be on a train. Instead, these are just labor agreements with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and the transportation division of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, Transportation (SMART-TD) union, which represents drivers, that require at least one member from each union. in the locomotive cabin.

The Association of American Railroads confirmed that its position in favor of one-person crews has not changed. She believes it will be more efficient, and just as safe, to have engineers respond to problems with trains driving along the tracks in trucks rather than riding in the locomotive cab.

“The position on crew size has not changed. The railroads have made it clear that they support fact-based policies that address the cause of this accident and enhance safety,” an AAR statement said. “As we continue to review this bill, it is clear that it includes many of the same wish list items that AAR and others have clearly said would not prevent a similar accident in the future, such as the arbitrary crew size rule. Railways looks forward to working with all stakeholders to advance real solutions in a meaningful way.”

Union Pacific said opposition to a two-person crew mandate does not mean the railroads are not concerned about safety.

“No data shows that a crew of two confined to one cabin is safer, and train crew size must continue to be determined by collective bargaining,” UP states. “The proposed legislation limits our ability to compete in a business landscape where technology is rapidly changing the transportation industry.”

The other major freight railroads – Norfolk Southern, CSX, Burlington Northern Santa Fe – did not respond to questions about the legislation. But the AAR is the trade group lobbying on its behalf.

The AAR’s statement did not address the question of whether this rule is now more likely to pass. But Jeremy Ferguson, president of SMART-TD, said this accident completely changed the chances of getting the two-person crew requirement written into US law.

“Absolutely,” he said when asked in an interview with CNN Business? if he thinks the mood will now pass. “When an incident like this happens it brings up all the issues, how unsafe the rail industry really is. I thought we didn’t have a chance before that. The railroads and the AAR do a great job of lobbying DC. So it’s generally difficult to get people to vote for something like this rule. But sometimes it takes a disaster to drive home the point. Whenever you turn on the TV, there is still a problem. Does not go away.”

Senators, both Democratic and Republican, who sponsor the rail safety bill say they are hopeful that there is now bipartisan support for changing the law.

“Railway lobbyists have fought for years to protect their profits at the expense of communities like East Palestine,” said Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio. “These common sense bipartisan security measures will finally hold the big rail companies accountable, make our railways and the towns along them safer, and prevent future tragedies so that no community ever has to suffer like East Palestine again.”

“Through this legislation, Congress has a real opportunity to ensure that what happened in eastern Palestine will never happen again,” said JD Vance, the Ohio Republican who is a co-sponsor. “We owe all Americans the peace of mind that their community is protected from such a catastrophe.”

If the law is changed due to the East Palestine derailment, it will not be the first disaster that has changed rules and laws governing trains. In 2013, a runaway Canadian freight train carrying oil tank cars crashed in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, causing a massive fire that killed 47 people and destroyed 40 buildings in the city. Canada responded by amending its law to require two-person crews on trains carrying hazardous materials.

But calls to change the law in the United States over this accident fell on deaf ears.

The fact that there were three employees on the train that derailed in East Palestine — a driver, a driver and a trainee — did not prevent this accident from happening.

The National Transportation Safety Board’s initial finding about the disaster was that a fire originally started when a railcar carrying plastic pellets was heated by a hot axle.

After the fire started, the train passed through three track detectors designed to determine if there is a problem causing the overheating. But the first two didn’t signal a problem, even when the fire raised the temperature by over 100 degrees. The detectors are designed not to alert the crew until there is a 200 degree rise in the detected temperature. Finally, the third detector registered a temperature rise of over 250 degrees, triggering an alarm in the locomotive cab.

The NTSB said the driver immediately responded to the alarm by applying the brakes in an attempt to stop the train, but the wheel bearing of the burning car failed before he could stop the train, causing the train to derail.

Ferguson said that while the crew was unable to prevent this derailment from happening, there are countless times they detect a problem and prevent a derailment. He said not having the conductor on the train would miss many of these problems and cause many more derailments.

“When a detector goes off, you stop the train and the conductor can go back and check for an overheated axle and make an immediate decision,” Ferguson said. A driver cannot leave the locomotive, even if it is stopped. Only the driver can verify what is the problem that triggered the alarm.

But if the driver is driving a truck, rather than riding in the cab of the locomotive, it may take an hour or more for the driver to get there and the axle may have cooled down. At that point, the conductor may have to send the train back on its way, according to Ferguson, even though the original problem triggering the heat detector — a faulty axle or bearing — is still an issue that can quickly cause a derailment. .

“So having a guy wandering off in the truck could cause a derailment,” Ferguson said.

Aside from problems of this sort, having a second person in the cabin might just offer greater attention to detail during long train journeys.

“You have two pairs of ears and two pairs of eyes. That always helps,” said Ferguson.

And it also helps in case of medical emergency. In January, a CSX engineer suffered a heart attack while bringing a freight train to Savannah, Georgia, according to the engineers’ union. The conductor managed to recognize that he was in danger, gave him an aspirin and called in advance for an ambulance to be waiting for him at the railway yard.

The engineer required emergency bypass surgery but survived the heart attack.

“It happens more often than people realize,” Ferguson said. “It’s not necessarily always a heart attack. But having two people up there always pays dividends for the team members themselves.”

CSX had no immediate comment on the incident.

The fact that current employment contracts require two crew members is of little comfort to the unions of train drivers and train drivers.

They point out that, under the Railroad Labor Act, they may have a contract that is contested by some or all of the railroad unions imposed on them by Congress, as happened last December. While this current contract has retained the provision for two person crews, this will not necessarily be the case in all future contracts, even if unions continue to prioritize the issue.

Congress usually approves what is recommended by a panel appointed by the president to propose a compromise that, it is hoped, both labor and the administration can accept. But there may be one or two provisions that break the deal for unions, like allowing one-man crews.

“Given the wrong president, we could lose this quickly,” Ferguson said.

The Federal Railroad Administration is also considering a rule that would require crews of two. But Ferguson said writing the requirement into law would be better than a simple regulation. An FRA regulation might be easier to change in a new administration than getting a change in law.

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