As part of modernizing and adapting to new challenges, railroads are seeking to revise outdated or unnecessary rules on crew staffing.
Safety is Always the Top Priority
Safety is the industry’s foremost responsibility and recent years have been the safest ever. The safety technology to support single-person crews exists today and freight railroads will only continue to get safer as newer safety technologies are deployed. The most prominent safety technology is Positive Train Control, slated for full implementation within the next year.
- PTC constantly monitors a train’s location, direction and speed. It automatically stops trains before certain human factor accidents can occur, including collisions, derailments due to excessive speed, and train movements through misaligned switches or unauthorized zones.
- Single-person crews in the locomotive cab are in widespread use in freight rail throughout Europe and on passenger rail systems globally. Single-person crews have also been in use – even prior to PTC – on various short-line and regional freight railroads in the United States. The major freight railroads also often operate with just one person in the locomotive for short distances.
- The Federal Railroad Administration has noted that there is no “reliable or conclusive statistical data” to justify requiring two-person crews.
- Over the years, freight train crew sizes in the U.S. have gradually been reduced from five to the current standard of two, an engineer and a conductor. During this same period, the railroad industry has dramatically improved its safety record.
- Freight railroads plan to thoughtfully initiate single-person crews on the services and in the regions where such operations are best suited and only on those stretches of rail where PTC is deployed and operational.
In New Labor Round, Modernizing Crew Staffing is a Key Issue
One of the most pressing needs for railroads is to modernize the size and makeup of train crews. At present, most U.S. freight railroads employ two people on a locomotive, an engineer and a conductor. But in order to take full advantage of billions of dollars of investment in modern safety technology, railroads must revise outdated or unnecessary staffing rules that effectively freeze in place current crew staffing.
That modernization imperative underpins a recent legal filing by the railroads. The National Railway Labor Conference’s largest members, including the major U.S. freight railroads, filed suit Oct. 3 to confirm that the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, a major rail industry union that represents conductors, should be required to negotiate over crew size in the new national bargaining round.
Crew size issues have always been the domain of collective bargaining negotiations — and railroads believe that they should remain a subject of negotiations as the new round gets underway.
- The rail industry is not asking the court to direct a specific outcome on crew size bargaining. The lawsuit’s purpose is to establish that crew size is subject to negotiations and that the union, also known as SMART-TD, must submit any continuing objection to binding arbitration, as is required of all contractual interpretation disputes under the Railway Labor Act.
- This legal filing was necessary because SMART-TD has maintained that provisions in existing agreements prevent any proposals to reduce or modify crew sizes. The position that SMART-TD has typically taken on this issue concedes that negotiations over the issue will eventually be permitted – perhaps in five years – whereas the rail industry contends that such negotiations are permitted now.
Technology is Changing the Role of the Conductor Position
With the implementation of PTC, the conductor’s existing onboard observer and recorder duties will be redundant and unnecessary.
- The conductor has over the last 30-40 years served two primary roles in freight operations: first, as a ground service employee to assist with planned or unplanned work events along the train’s route; and second, as an in-cab observer/recorder to call out signals and record directives from the dispatcher in support of the engineer, who operates the locomotive.
- The conductor’s existing observer/recorder role in the locomotive cab will be unnecessary because the specific functions presently served – calling out signals and recording directives from the dispatcher about the train’s permitted movements – are or can be incorporated into the PTC system. Other long-existing technologies on board U.S. freight trains – sometimes called an “alerter” system – already guard against any potential incapacitation of the engineer.
- The other reason the conductor has historically been on-board the train – to be available for any necessary ground-service when the train is stopped – can be addressed with ground-based positions.
- While conductors and engineers both occupy the cab of the locomotive, their roles are not akin to co-pilots of a commercial aircraft. Indeed, there is only one full set of operating controls in a locomotive, placed at the engineer’s stand.
Modernizing and Redeploying Conductors to More Predictable Jobs
Redeploying conductors to ground-based positions will safely meet the industry’s operational and service requirements while providing conductors with higher quality-of-life jobs.
- Conductors based in a locomotive cab are required to spend many nights away from home and may be called to work on unpredictable schedules. A ground-based role produces a more predictable, consistent and higher quality-of-life position with conductors assigned to specific regions and shifts, like many other railroad employees such as signalmen and track maintenance employees.
- Ground-based conductors will be staffed and deployed to meet all planned ground service duties, such as servicing a train at a scheduled stop, and to promptly respond to unplanned events.
- In many cases, a ground-based conductor will be able to more promptly service a train by positioning in advance or responding directly to the specific location of needed service on a train. Presently, a conductor riding in the locomotive cab must walk back to the location on a train – sometimes up to two miles behind the locomotive – where service is needed. Trucks that drive on railroad tracks (a highway-to-rail or “hi-rail vehicle”) will also allow ground-based conductors to drive directly to a train’s location on the track.
- The conductor’s role has evolved over time as rail technology has been developed, including migrating to the locomotive cab only when the caboose was eliminated. This would be a natural continuation of that evolution.