FRA withdraws proposed minimum crew size rule

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Union Pacific Montana Sub Crew Change Justin Franz

A Union Pacific freight train changes crews south of Silver Bow, Mont., in May 2019.

Justin Franz

WASHINGTON — The Federal Railroad Administration will not implement a rule requiring a certain number of people in the cab of freight trains, the agency announced this week.

On Thursday, the FRA withdrew a notice of proposed rulemaking that dated back to 2016, when the federal agency was considering requiring at least two people aboard all freight trains. In the notice of withdrawal, FRA Administrator Ronald Batory wrote that there was not enough data to support the need for more than one person in the cab of a train, a statement that immediately drew ire from labor officials.

“After closely examining the train crew staffing issue and conducting significant outreach to industry and public stakeholders, [the] FRA determined that issuing any regulation requiring a minimum number of train crew members would not be justified because such a regulation is unnecessary for a railroad operation to be conducted safely at this time,” Batory writes.

The FRA started looking at a minimum crew size law shortly after the fatal oil train derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013. In that situation, a parked oil train rolled into a town and derailed after the locomotive engineer who was working alone failed to apply an adequate number of hand brakes to keep the train stationary. Transportation Safety Board of Canada investigators later ruled that while a number of factors led to the tragedy that took 47 lives, the use of a one-person crew did not directly contribute to the derailment. Batory cited that report in his notice to withdraw.

After holding a number of meetings about crew sizes in 2013 and 2014, the FRA filed a notice of proposed rulemaking in March 2016 to gather public input. The FRA received approximately 1,600 comments from industry groups, unions, railroads, and railroaders; 1,545 of the comments were in support of some sort of crew staffing rule and 39 comments were against it.

More than 1,400 comments were from the general public, the vast majority of which identified themselves as current or former railroaders. Many comments offered anecdotal information about why having at least two crew members was important. In one instance, a train brakeman wrote that he was able to work with a locomotive engineer to cut a train in two after a grade-crossing accident, which allowed an ambulance to quickly aid an injured teen. The man said the move likely saved the teenager’s life.

Despite the overwhelming public comment in support of a minimum crew size rule, Batory said data and information provided by industry groups, like the Association of American Railroads, outweighed those anecdotes. Batory cited a study by consulting firm Oliver Wyman, that was paid for by AAR, that found no concrete evidence that trains with two people were safer than those with just one.

AAR President and CEO Ian Jefferies lauded federal officials for their decision and says technology like positive train control is making the rail industry safer.

“AAR and its member railroads are gratified that the FRA rescinded this unjustified proposal and confirmed what it acknowledged from the start: there is no evidence to justify regulating minimum train crew size as a matter of safety,” Jefferies says. “Both Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao and Administrator Batory have made clear that safety is of paramount concern, new technologies can be powerful tools for achieving safety and overly prescriptive regulations can chill innovation. FRA’s careful, evidence-driven conclusion that there is no safety justification to lock railroads into their current crew size practices is consistent with these policies and recognizes the technology revolution occurring throughout the railroad industry.”

Unions were less pleased and vowed to do everything in their power, including going to court, to ensure that there are always two people in the cab of freight trains.

In a letter to members, SMART Transportation Division’s National Legislative Director John Risch writes, “President Donald Trump, DOT Secretary Elaine Chao and FRA Administrator Ron Batory have taken sides, and it's with the railroads that want to eliminate operating crew members to the detriment of rail safety and to the detriment of the communities through which our members operate trains. We are considering legal action and other avenues to protect our members and the American public from the prospects of driverless trains.”

The FRA’s ruling also appeared to nullify recent crew size laws implemented in individual states, including Colorado and Nevada.

“This notice of withdrawal provides FRA’s determination that no regulation of train crew staffing is appropriate and that the FRA intends to negatively preempt any state laws concerning that matter,” Batory writes.

Risch says that is a violation of states’ rights and was further evidence that Congress should enact a law regarding crew sizes. Earlier this year, a bill that did just that was introduced by U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska.

“It is now more important than ever that we pass a federal law requiring that every train in America have a minimum of two crew members,” Risch writes. “Those two crew members must be a federally certified conductor and a federally certified locomotive engineer.”

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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