Safety concerns on the trains they run dominated the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen’s conference in Las Vegas in late June. Topping the list were railroads’ plans to cut the crew members per train down to one and the issue of transportation of nuclear waste.

BLE&T delegates, whose union is now part of the Teamsters Rail Conference, took the rail safety issues to the following IBT convention in Las Vegas. Oregon BLE&T Legislative Chairman Scott Palmer told delegates “a serious threat” looms to both workers and communities from transportation of spent nuclear fuel from U.S. reactors to the Energy Department’s deep underground storage site in Yucca Mountain, Nev. Virtually all of that spent fuel will come by rail.

Palmer said rail workers do not receive proper training to handle spent fuel and do not receive the same protections given to other nuclear industry workers. And DOE has no program to track rail workers’ exposure to potential radiation from the shipments. The federal agency contends the reinforced cement containers carrying the spent fuel will protect the workers and the public from radiation releases.

“It’s our goal to not only track but to lower exposure levels and keep them as low as possible,” Palmer said. “Right now, no (rail) carrier even has a program that will protect pregnant workers from radiation. If you show up to work, you cannot turn down a train of radioactive material. Rail is the way they’re going to move it. It’s going to be dedicated trains, and it’s going to be 210 feet behind you.”

BLE&T is also leading a crusade against railroads’ schemes for engineerless freight locomotives in train yards — especially since the carriers, with Bush Federal Railroad Administration approval, liberally interpret the word “yard.” Thirty years ago, there were five crew members on a freight train. Now, Burlington Northern-Santa Fe is experimenting with running freight trains out of Galesburg, Ill., with just the engineer. Much of the actual operation will be turned over to remote computer control. Dozens of cities, counties, towns and labor bodies have protested this practice, citing fatal accidents and safety threats.

The engineer-only freight trains were thrown into current bargaining between the nation’s freight railroads, which want them, and the Teamster-led union coalition representing rail workers. Chicago is the nation’s largest freight rail hub, followed by Kansas City.