Federal officials still mull one-person crew regulations

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Short line owner Terry Respondek prepares two locomotives for service.
Drew Halverson
WASHINGTON – For 19 months, the railroad industry has anxiously waited to see what federal regulators will decide in the debate over one-person crews. Now, nearly a year after the Federal Railroad Administration submitted a notice of proposed rule making on train crew size to the Office of Management and Budget, officials say the answer could soon arrive.

Although there is no firm timeline, an FRA staffer tells Trains News Wire that officials there are “hopeful that it will be published soon.”

The staffer, who agreed to speak to News Wire on background, couldn't get into specifics about the rule the OMB is currently reviewing, but noted that FRA officials have declared support for multiple-person crews in the past.

“The Federal Railroad Administration has stated many times that we believe safety is enhanced with a second crew member, especially on critical routes,” Federal Railroad Administrator Sarah Feinberg said at a SMART union conference this summer in Rhode Island. “There is no question in my mind that a second crew member has been critical to containing accidents and keeping people safe at accident sites.”

The FRA first announced it was going to make a rule regarding single person crews in April 2013. At the time, Feinberg's predecessor Joseph C. Szabo said he believed safety was enhanced with multiple people on board a freight train. The industry was quick the balk at the statement, however, and groups like the Association of American Railroads stated that with the installation of positive train control single-person crews could be used safely and efficiently. The industry specifically pointed to the Indiana Rail Road, which has used one-person crews on some trains since the 1990s.

But many union officials and on-the-ground railroaders believe the industry is not seeing the big picture and say that one-person crews are unsafe. In an interview with Trains Magazine earlier this year, Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen President Dennis R. Pierce talked about the advantages of a two person crew and pointed to a CSX Transportation oil train wreck earlier this year where the conductor was able to uncouple the power from the train before meeting with first responders. “When it comes to safety, this nation's railroads are still bound by many federal regulations, but certain railroads rarely go beyond those regulations when they would conflict with the bottom line,” he said.

However, even if the FRA decides to mandate multiple person crews on most freight trains there may still be ways for railroads to operate with a single-person. The FRA staffer who spoke to Trains notes that the rule considered by the agency's Railroad Safety Advisory Committee did have a process for railroads to seek approval for one-person operations.

In January of this year, the FRA submitted its rules to the OMB, which has been reviewing it ever since. Once the OMB makes a decision, it would be published in the federal register and be open for public comments before a final ruling will be made.
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