Safety is, and always has been, the railroad industry’s top priority. For approximately three decades, the collective bargaining agreements between the railroads and the union that represents train service employees generally have required a minimum of two employees – one conductor and one engineer – to be assigned to trains engaged in through-freight service.
Since those minimums were established, however, the railroads have developed and deployed new Positive Train Control (“PTC”) technology that allows through-freight operations to be safely conducted safely with only a single person in the cab of the locomotive. As a result, the railroads seek in the current round of bargaining to modernize rules relating to the size and makeup of train crews.
Q: What is PTC and how does it work?
A: PTC is an advanced system designed to automatically stop trains before accidents can occur. PTC systems share real-time information regarding train movements, speed restrictions, and the state of signal and switch devices. The system provides the locomotive engineer with advance warning of movement authority limits, speed limits and track conditions ahead, thereby giving the engineer time to react and bring the train to a safe speed or a controlled stop. If corrective action is not detected within the warning period, PTC automatically applies the brakes and brings the train to a controlled stop without the engineer’s assistance. In this fashion, the PTC system mitigates human error and prevents accidents and incidents.
Q: What do you mean by “modernizing” crew size rules?
A: Over the last 30 years, the conductor served two primary roles in freight operations: first, as a ground service employee to assist with planned or unplanned work events; and second, as an in-cab observer/recorder to call out signals, record directives from the dispatcher, and ensure that the train does not exceed its authority limits. PTC technology has supplanted the conductor’s in-cab observer/recorder role and ensures safe engineer-only operation of trains. While there is some variation in the proposals offered by each railroad, the general theme is the same: the railroads seek to remove conductors from the locomotive cab and redeploy them to ground-based support roles.
Q: Is it safe to operate a train without an onboard conductor?
A: Yes. While the statement that “two is better than one” has emotional appeal, it is simply not supported by the facts. Many passenger and freight railroads around the world already operate with only a single person in the cab. Studies have shown that these operations – which in many cases are not backstopped by technologies as advanced as PTC – are just as safe as multi-person operations. In fact, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), which is charged with oversight of the railroad industry, has reviewed the matter and concluded that its data did “not establish that one-person operations are less safe than multi-person train crews.” The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has likewise concluded that “there is insufficient data to demonstrate that accidents are avoided by having a second person in the cab.”
Q: Are all freight rail operations impacted by the proposal?
A: The railroads’ current proposal applies to operations on routes with PTC or equivalent technology.
Q: How will the railroads perform ground service work?
A: Ground service work falls into two general categories: planned and unplanned. The overwhelming majority of ground service work is planned and can be effectively performed by a redeployed conductor who is pre-positioned at the work location before the train arrives. In many cases, a pre-positioned ground employee will be able to complete the work more efficiently than an onboard conductor because of the time it takes for the onboard conductor to walk between the locomotive cab to the work location. This means that stopped trains can get underway more quickly, and there will be less disruption in the communities where railroads operate.
Q: Don’t the railroads need onboard conductors to respond to unplanned events?
A: Unplanned work makes up only a small portion of the conductor’s job. In fact, based on all 2019 operations, the NCCC Class I railroads have determined that a full-time conductor can expect to leave the cab for an unplanned event about once every three months. Said another way, for every 55 through freight train crew starts, 54 will operate without any need for the on-board conductor to respond to an unplanned ground service event outside the locomotive cab. In those relatively 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.
Q: How does the railroads’ proposal enhance employees’ job security and quality of life?
A: 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.
Additionally, conductors currently have unpredictable schedules and spend much of their time away from home. As much of the ground service work will be shift based, conductors who are redeployed to ground-based roles will spend more nights at home and will have a far more predictable schedule than they do today.