Engineers' union calls on government to stop locomotive automation

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CLEVELAND — The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen has asked the Federal Railroad Administration for an emergency order that would immediately prohibit the carrier-mandated use of Locomotive Engineer Assist/Display & Event Recorder (LEADER) and Trip Optimizer technologies.

The BLET contends that the mandated use of these electronic devices creates unsafe distractions for locomotive engineers, and that the technology overrides locomotive engineer decision-making in an unsafe manner.

BLET National President Dennis Pierce made the Organization’s position known in a February 4 letter to Robert C. Lauby, the FRA’s Associate Administrator for Railroad Safety and Chief Safety Officer. LEADER and General Electric’s Trip Optimizer are auto-control fuel efficiency technologies.

In his Feb. 4 letter, Pierce said the technology can create unsafe situations because it can distract engineers. The carrier-mandated use of this technology “... presses an engineer into performing clerical duties while at the controls of a moving locomotive in the name of fuel efficiency, to the detriment of safety caused by these distractions,” Pierce wrote.

The technology was originally conceived as a way to assist engineers in obtaining greater fuel efficiency when operating locomotives. However, some carriers have mandated that this one-time guidance tool should supersede the skill-based judgment of locomotive engineers, forcing engineers to rely upon the technology as the primary method of train operation.

“Trip Optimizer and LEADER essentially are becoming a ‘virtual engineer’ — making automated decisions in a manner that transforms the engineer’s duties as an operator into that of a spectator or monitor,” President Pierce wrote. Use of the technology has created dangerous situations where crew members have been thrown out of their seats because of severe slack action. President Pierce also raised concerns about engineers maintaining proficient operating skills and being lulled into a false sense of security while operating on “cruise control.”

President Pierce called the current situation “unsafe and unsatisfactory,” and concluded his letter by calling upon the FRA to halt use of the technology until BLET’s concerns regarding distraction and forced-reliance have been properly addressed.

“BLET is proud of how this Union and locomotive engineers have fostered and promoted ways to safely integrate new technology, which is reflected in our formal partnering with FRA for the past two decades,” Pierce concluded. “Moreover, locomotive engineers have faced new forms of technology since they first climbed on board a locomotive. At every stage in the history of the development of the locomotive cab there has been a story of adapting to and mastering new technology by locomotive engineers. … We respectfully request that FRA issue an emergency order to prohibit the mandated use of and reliance upon LEADER, Trip Optimizer and other similar auto control or advisory control locomotive operating systems until railroads can prove that the relevant safety implications of reliance upon these systems have been properly identified and addressed. Communication-based train control systems that interact with throttle positions, train handling, air brakes and dynamic brakes place them in a category where an engineer is left only in reactive mode, and the current reality is unsafe and unsatisfactory.”

— From a BLET news release. Feb. 5, 2016 Published 10:37 p.m. Central time.
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