Freight double-stack train in USA, source: Wikipedia

US rail authority proposes new two-person crew rule to enhance train safety

Rail operators in the US will be required to maintain two-person crews under a proposed new rule by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to enhance train safety.

The move goes against industry efforts to reduce the manning of locomotives to one person.
The FRA said it would “carefully evaluate” each request for fewer than two crew members, supporting documentation submitted by a railroad, and the input of employees, communities, and the public.

‘Deadlocked contract negotiations’

A similar rule requiring two crew members was issued in 2016 but was abandoned during the Trump administration because the FRA concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence to show it was safer, the Associated Press (AP) reported.

The two-crew issue has been at the forefront of deadlocked contract negotiations – between rail freight operators and 12 labour unions – which are currently being reviewed by a special board of arbitrators set up by President Joe Biden earlier this month.

“For the past few years, our rail workers have worked hard to keep people and goods moving on our nation’s railroads, despite a global pandemic and supply chain challenges,” said US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. “This proposed rule will improve safety for America’s rail passengers – and rail workers – across the country.”

‘Positive Train Control’

FRA concluded that a second crew member in the cab of locomotives plays a crucial role in monitoring train operations and ensuring safety rules are respected.

However, rail freight operators argue that installing Positive Train Control (PTC), a system that can stop trains automatically in certain circumstances, makes a second person surplus to requirements.

Their lobbying for the operation of trains with only one person can perhaps be partly explained by the recruitment difficulties they continue to face amid ongoing staff shortages as the US emerges from the COVID pandemic.

‘Data-driven decision making’

FRA said the proposal would also enhance safety nationwide by replacing the existing patchwork of State laws regarding crew size with a uniform national standard. “Without consistent guidelines, railroads may be subjected to disparate requirements in every State in which they operate, resulting in potential safety risks, operational inefficiencies, and significant costs.

FRA’s NPRM (Notice of Proposed Rulemaking) also proposes requirements for the location of crew members on a moving train and would prohibit the operation of some trains with fewer than two crewmembers from transporting large amounts of certain hazardous materials. The risk assessment and annual oversight requirements in the NPRM are intended to ensure that railroads fully consider and address all relevant safety factors associated with using less than two-person crews.

“We are committed to data-driven decision making,” said FRA administrator Amit Bose. “In cases where railroads wish to operate with fewer than two crewmembers, we propose that they perform a rigorous, thorough, and transparent risk assessment and hazard analysis, and FRA will provide an opportunity for public comment on these submissions.”

‘Complementary’ and ‘consistent’

FRA underlined that the proposed rule is complementary to, rather than duplicative of, other recent regulatory initiatives it has issued or is in the process of developing.

“Those initiatives include railroad safety risk reduction programs and the development of fatigue risk management programs. Further, this rule is consistent with safety analysis required by other FRA regulations, including PTC.”

Rule ‘prioritises politics’

AP quoted sources offering sharply-contrasting views on the crewing issue. Greg Regan, president of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department coalition that represents rail unions, commented: “This proposed rule acknowledges that crew size is fundamentally a safety issue at its core.”

The head of the Association of American Railroads trade group, Ian Jefferies, said the rule “prioritises politics over sound, data-driven policy.”

Because of new braking technology, Jefferies added, “there is no plausible safety justification for regulating the number of individuals physically located inside the cab of a locomotive.”

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Author: Nikos Papatolios

Nikos Papatolios is editor of RailFreight.com, the online magazine for rail freight professionals.

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