Conductor Redeployment


As part of the ongoing modernization within the rail industry it is possible to revise crew staffing rules that were negotiated long before Positive Train Control (PTC) and other modern safety technologies that were developed and deployed across the network. By performing functions that previously were best performed by a conductor riding along with the engineer in the locomotive cab, these new technologies enable railroads to redeploy many conductors from their traditional, in-cab work environment to new, ground-based positions where they will be able to help the railroads serve customers and communities more effectively. In re-deploying conductors, the railroads would maintain safety levels while simultaneously enhancing quality of life for thousands of conductors who will no longer be required to spend countless nights away from home each year.

The railroads believe that the redeployment should – as it always has – be addressed by collective bargaining rather than regulation or legislation.  This is particularly true in light of the fact that the Federal Railroad Administration, the government agency charged with providing safety oversight to the industry, has observed that there is no “reliable or conclusive statistical data” to justify requiring two-person crews.

Safety is Always the Top Priority

Safety is the industry’s foremost responsibility and priority, and recent years have been the safest ever. Freight railroads take a holistic approach to safety through ongoing private investments, employee training, technology implementation, and community outreach.  Working together with their employees, suppliers, customers, and government partners such as the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), railroads are constantly implementing new technologies and operating practices to meet the industry’s ultimate goal of zero incidents.

The technology needed to safely redeploy conductors  — including PTC, the most predominant among them – already exists. PTC reduces the number of human error-caused accidents by automatically stopping or slowing a train when needed.  The system is designed to prevent four specific types of accidents: (1) train-to-train collisions; (2) derailments caused by excessive speed; (3) accidents that can occur if trains are routed down the wrong track; and (4) accidents that can occur during unauthorized train movements on tracks undergoing maintenance.  Today, PTC is fully implemented and operational on 100% of Class I PTC route-miles network-wide.

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The operating model described above – where an engineer rides in the cab of the locomotive and each train is also supported by ground-based employees – is in widespread use in freight rail throughout Europe, on various short-line and regional freight railroads in the United States. Passenger rail systems throughout the U.S. and globally also operate with a single engineer in the cab of the locomotive.  The following are several examples:

  • European Union countries with the most stringent regulatory systems — including Germany, France, Sweden and the United Kingdom — operate predominantly in both freight and their extensive passenger train operations with one person in the cab of the locomotive.
  • Passenger and commuter railroads such as Amtrak, Metropolitan Rail Corporation (Metra) in Chicago, Maryland Area Regional Commuter (MARC) in Maryland and Virginia Railway Express (VRE) in Virginia do the same.
  • Short line and regional freight railroads like Bay Line Railroad, Heart of Georgia Railroad, Portland & Western Railroad and others operate with only an engineer in the cab of the locomotive. Indiana Rail Road has safely operated with an engineer in the cab and re-deployed conductors for nearly 20 years.
  • In Australia and New Zealand, engineer-only crews are commonly used in freight railroad operations.

Studies have shown that these operations – which in many cases are not backstopped by technologies as advanced as PTC – are just as safe as operations with more than one crew member in the cab of the locomotive.

Redeploying the conductor from the cab to the ground-based positions is consistent with the experience of these operators and others, as well as with the experience of the freight rail industry itself.  Over the years, the number of employees assigned to each freight train in the U.S. has gradually been reduced from five to the current standard of two, an engineer and a conductor, with exceptions for some short distance operations that already require only one person. During this same period, the railroad industry has dramatically improved its safety record.

Technology is Changing the Role of the Conductor Position

The implementation of PTC changed the role of the conductor.  For the last thirty or forty years, the conductor has served two primary roles in freight operation: 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 and recorder to call out signals and record directives from the dispatcher in support of the engineer, who operates the locomotive.

The conductor can be safely redeployed in the PTC environment because the specific observer and recorder 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.  While conductors and engineers both occupy the cab of the locomotive, their roles are not like co-pilots of commercial aircraft. There is only one full set of operating controls in a locomotive, placed at the engineer’s stand.

The remaining 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 by conductors in ground-based positions.

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.  This is because 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).

Ground-based conductors would 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 service a train more promptly 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 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.

Unplanned work makes up only a small portion of the conductor’s job and happens only infrequently. In those rare instances when unplanned ground service may be required, a ground-based conductor who is strategically located along the network would respond, inspect the issue, and possibly set out the affected rail car.

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. Redeployment to ground-based positions would be a natural continuation of that evolution. By improving overall network efficiency without sacrificing safety margins, redeployment would ensure that the railroads can maintain their ability to compete effectively in this broader market for transportation services – and, in doing so, provide long-term job stability to railroad employees and their families.

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