Two-person train crews necessary for safety, lawmakers say

Repost from Lincoln Journal Star

Two-person train crews necessary for safety, lawmakers say

By Zach Pluhacek | Lincoln Journal Star, May 28, 2015 1:45 pm
A BNSF Railway locomotive pulls cars of coal through Lincoln in January. FRANCIS GARDLER/Journal Star file photo

Trains need two-person crews to help prevent disasters like the 2013 derailment and explosion of a crude oil train that killed 47 people in Quebec, some Nebraska lawmakers argued Thursday.

The Federal Railroad Administration has signaled plans to require two-man crews on trains carrying oil and freight trains, which is the industry’s standard practice, but its proposed rule hasn’t been issued.

Rail lines would like to switch to a crew of one on most freight engines as they equip trains with positive train control, a new federally mandated wireless safety system that can force a train to stop automatically to avoid a potential crash.

“This is a risky development for public safety in Nebraska, particularly in light of the hazardous types of freight that are being hauled through our state,” said Sen. Al Davis of Hyannis on Thursday.

Nebraska is home to the nation’s two biggest railroads, Union Pacific, based in Omaha, and BNSF Railway, which is owned by Berkshire Hathaway in Omaha. UP operates the world’s largest railroad classification yard, the Bailey Yard in North Platte, and BNSF has extensive operations in Lincoln and the rest of Nebraska.

Davis sponsored a measure (LB192) this year that would have outright required two-person crews in Nebraska, but it failed to advance from the Legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee.

Instead, lawmakers passed a nonbinding resolution Thursday that doesn’t specifically call for two-person crews, but it urges the Federal Railroad Administration to adopt a rule that “ensures public safety and promotes the efficient movement of freight, while supporting interstate commerce.”

The resolution (LR338) was adopted on a 36-4 vote.

“These trains are some of the heaviest moving things on this planet, and just having one person in charge doesn’t seem to make sense,” said Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm, who cosigned the resolution.

But Sen. Tyson Larson of O’Neill argued human mistakes are often to blame when tragedy strikes. “Sometimes true safety does lie within automation,” he said.

Union Pacific opposes the resolution because it falsely implies trains are unsafe and ignores collective bargaining deals that have addressed safe train crew sizes for decades, said spokesman Mark Davis.

Two rail unions —  the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, which represent about 3,700 active members between them — support the resolution.

Cutting down on the number of crew members would almost certainly affect jobs and reduce the number of workers paying into shared retirement plans.

The more critical issue is what happens when a train derails or breaks down, said Pat Pfeifer, state legislative board chairman for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

One crew member has to remain inside the engine at all times, so without a second person, there’s no one available on scene to help cut a crossing or take other emergency precautions.

Both unions are also backing a bill in Congress to require two-person crews.

“It’s about public safety; it’s not about jobs,” Pfeifer said.

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