Crew Staffing


As part of modernizing and adapting to new challenges, railroads are seeking to revise outdated or unnecessary rules on crew staffing. Local negotiations with SMART-TD, the union which represents conductors, remain ongoing even after the conclusion of the most recent national bargaining round.

Safety is Always the Top Priority

Safety is the industry’s foremost responsibility and recent years have been the safest ever. The safety technology to support single-person crews exists today and freight railroads will only continue to get safer as newer safety technologies are deployed. The most prominent safety technology is Positive Train Control (PTC).

PTC constantly monitors a train’s location, direction and speed. It automatically stops trains before certain human factor accidents can occur, including collisions, derailments due to excessive speed and train movements through misaligned switches or unauthorized zones.

Single-person crews in the locomotive cab already are in widespread use in freight rail throughout Europe and on passenger rail systems globally. Single-person crews have been in use – even prior to PTC – on various short-line and regional freight railroads in the United States. The major freight railroads also often operate with just one person in the locomotive for short distances. Here 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 a single-person crew. Indiana Rail Road has safely operated one-person crews for nearly 20 years.
  • In Australia and New Zealand, one-person crews are commonly used in freight railroad operations.

The Federal Railroad Administration notes that there is no “reliable or conclusive statistical data” to justify requiring two-person crews.

Over the years, freight train crew sizes in the U.S. have gradually been reduced from five to the current standard of two, an engineer and a conductor. During this same period, the railroad industry has dramatically improved its safety record.

Freight railroads plan to thoughtfully initiate single-person crews on the services and in the regions where such operations are best suited and only on those stretches of rail where PTC is deployed and operational.

Modernizing Crew Staffing is a Key Issue

One of the most pressing needs for railroads is to modernize the size and makeup of train crews. At present, most U.S. freight railroads employ two people on a locomotive, an engineer and a conductor. But to take full advantage of billions of dollars of investment in modern safety technology and the government-mandated development and installation of PTC, railroads must revise outdated or unnecessary staffing rules that effectively freeze in place current crew staffing.

Crew size issues have always been the domain of collective bargaining negotiations — and railroads believe that they should be addressed through negotiations in this round of bargaining.

Technology is Changing the Role of the Conductor Position

The implementation of PTC renders the conductor’s existing onboard observer and recorder duties unnecessary.

The conductor has served two primary roles in freight operations during the last 30-40 years: 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’s existing observer and recorder role in the locomotive cab is unnecessary in the PTC environment because the specific 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.

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 with ground-based positions.

While conductors and engineers both occupy the cab of the locomotive, their roles are not like co-pilots of commercial aircraft. That is why there is only one full set of operating controls in a locomotive, placed at the engineer’s stand.

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.

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 such as signalmen and track maintenance employees.

Ground-based conductors will 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 – sometimes up to two miles behind the locomotive – 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 – typically just a mechanical issue with a rail car or an alert from a wayside detector – a conductor would inspect the issue and possibly set out the affected rail car. Rather than be required to staff every single through freight train with an on-board conductor, the railroads will instead dispatch ground-based conductors who are strategically located along the network to respond to unplanned events.

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. This would be a natural continuation of that evolution.

Many rail customers operate in highly competitive environments in which their shipping decisions – the type of transportation and which carrier to use – are also very competitive. By improving overall network efficiency without sacrificing safety margins, the carriers’ crew size and redeployment proposals are designed to 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.

For additional information regarding the carrier proposals, please click here.

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