Rail workers group condemns allowance of single-worker freight trains

WASHINGTON (PAI) – With a new deadline of July 15 for comments on a federal rule on the minimum number of workers on freight trains, a rank-and-file union rail workers group is blasting the feds for potentially allowing single workers to crew the nation’s freights.

“There is no safe way to run a train with a single crew member, period,” says the letter from Ron Kaminkow, executive secretary of Railroad Workers United.

Therefore, his group “cannot support the proposed rule in its current form because it would in fact allow any railroad to potentially run any train with fewer than two employees,” Kaminkow told the Federal Railroad Administration, which has published the proposal.

“The proposed rule, as currently written, outlaws not one instance of single employee train operations,” including on long freight and passenger trains, he added.

RWU, Smart’s Transportation Division – the old United Transportation Union – and the Teamsters’ Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen have led a years-long crusade for a minimum of two crew members on each freight. Railroads want to have one crew member, the engineer. Last year, one rail executive last year advocated crewless freight trains.

Coincidentally, the comment deadline comes 10 days after the third anniversary – on July 6 – of the Lac-Megantic, Quebec, rail disaster, which focused attention on the issue.

There, a 72-car oil train parked on a downhill siding with inadequate air brakes – due to company negligence and lack of government oversight-failed while the engineer was on break.

The oil train broke loose, accelerated for several miles before derailing and exploding in downtown Lac-Megantic, destroying the area and killing 47 people. In Quebec, area residents marked the anniversary with remembrance ceremonies and calls for more rail safety, while RWU circulated a petition to call for an end to the trial of engineer Tom Harding, a union member, and two other workers. The now-bankrupt railroad also faces charges in the case.

The three each face 47 charges of criminal negligence causing death. Quebec courts are holding preliminary hearings on Harding’s case, while the other two face trial in September.

Meanwhile, RWU says the feds have written a railway worker rule with a large loophole.

“Rather than a rule that would prohibit single employee operations of trains, the FRA’s proposed rule outlines the process by which: a) railroads that are already operating with a single crew member can achieve authorization to continue the process; and b) railroads interested in implementing single crew operations can obtain a road map for doing just that” by declaring that one-person crews are safe in specific circumstances,” its letter says.

“The FRA is attempting to placate unions, community groups and the general public on the one hand with a ‘Two-Person Train Crew Rule,’ while on the other hand signaling a green light to the industry to run trains with a single crew member,” RWU said.

“As a result of the shortcomings in the proposed rule, the unions of the operating crafts…issued a joint statement of opposition to the proposed rule in its current form. Over 1,000 rank and file railroad workers-mostly engineers and conductors-made public comment to the FRA regarding the issue from March 16-June 15. Practically 100 percent of these comments insisted on the importance of a minimum of two employees on every train crew. Many of them gave real-life examples of experiences in the field where a two-person crew was indispensable.”

The railroads also tried to impose one-person crews through bargaining with the rail unions, but the unions refuse to agree. The railroads are telling FRA it should leave the crew size topic to the negotiations. RWU warned the agency against adopting that scheme.

“The public and the FRA should not be swayed by the rail carriers’ insistence that this is a subject best left to the bargaining table with the labor organizations. The general public has a huge stake in this issue,” it said.

“Throughout our history, safety has been federally mandated in one form or another in order to protect the safety of workers, passengers and communities.” Like other prior safety advances, “the all-important question of train crew staffing should not simply be left up to the rail industry to decide what is best for all of us,” the RWU letter concludes.

Photo: Matthew Brown/AP



Press Associates Union News Service provides national coverage of news affecting workers, including activism, politics, economics, legislation in Congress and actions by the White House, federal agencies and the courts that affect working people. Mark Gruenberg is Editor in chief and owner of Press Associates Union News Service, Washington, D.C.