Freight Rail Policy Stance: Lawmakers should not legislatively mandate two-person crew sizes, such as called for in the Safe Freight Act of 2019. These efforts would upend decades of meaningful collective bargaining and undermine the industry’s ability to compete in a rapidly changing transportation space.

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Crew staffing — particularly the number of persons in the locomotive — has always been established through collective bargaining, a longstanding process used by railroads and rail labor to negotiate wages, benefits and work rules, not by legislation. Current legislative efforts to require at least two-person crews lack a safety justification; ignore the safe and successful use of single-person crews that have happened for decades at some U.S. freight railroads and in passenger and freight rail systems throughout the world; upend decades of meaningful collective bargaining between rail management and rail labor; and undermine the sector’s ability to compete against less climate friendly forms of transportation.

After five years of analysis, The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the nation’s the expert federal regulatory agency that Congress has vested authority in establish national standards in every area of railroad safety, has evaluated this issue in the past and has never regulated train crew size.  The FRA even went as far to rescind a proposal requiring two people in the cab of a locomotive, concluding that federal crew size regulation is unnecessary. With prior technological advancements, freight railroads and labor unions have reduced crew sizes from five to three to two. These reductions have coincided with safety improvements throughout the industry, particularly for incidents caused by human error.

Crew size is not a safety issue.

Safety is and always will be a top priority for railroads. There are no data showing two-person crews are safer than one-person crews. The transition to a single crew member in the locomotive cab is already taking place, both abroad and domestically, with a proven record of success. In the United States, operations with one person in the locomotive cab are common on various railroads:

  • Passenger and commuter railroads such as Metropolitan Rail Corporation (Metra) in Chicago, Maryland Area Regional Commuter (MARC) in Maryland and Virginia Railway Express (VRE) in Virginia.
  • Short line and regional freight railroads like Bay Line Railroad, Heart of Georgia Railroad and Portland & Western Railroad, to name a few. Indiana Rail Road has safely operated one-person crews on two out of every five trains for nearly 20 years.

Internationally, the use of one-person locomotive crews is a dominant practice on many railroads:

  • European Union countries with the most stringent regulatory systems — including Germany, France, Sweden and the United Kingdom — operate predominantly with one person in the cab of the locomotive.
  • In Australia and New Zealand, one-person crews are commonly used in freight railroad operations.

Modern operational models, record investment and advancements in technology have transformed the way railroads work. For example, life-saving technology called Positive Train Control (PTC) – which monitors speed restrictions, communications and track signals to prevent certain train-to-train collisions and derailments caused by human error – has been fully deployed on high-volume and passenger lines. This innovation renders the conductor’s in-cab responsibilities redundant. As a result, conductors can be redeployed to support train operations from the ground. Single-person crews would only be present on PTC enabled lines and where it makes sense to have them.

Collective bargaining maintains safety while allowing railroads to modernize their workforce.

Rail staffing has been a matter of collective bargaining and should remain that way. Any changes to agreements regarding crew size are already subject to existing statutory collective bargaining processes under the Railway Labor Act.

Today, freight train conductors are stationed on locomotives even though most of their work is ground-based. The majority of a conductor’s duties — such as inspecting the train and preparing it for a trip — occur before the train leaves the rail yard. While the train is in operation, the conductor assists the engineer in the locomotive cab by calling out signals and receiving and recording authorizations about train movements from dispatchers. PTC can perform these in-cab tasks, rendering the in-cab conductor duties redundant while reducing the potential for human error.

As part of their collective bargaining proposal, Class I railroads plan to redeploy some conductors from an in-cab to a ground-based position. In this role, these conductors will continue to perform all the ground-based duties of today’s in-cab conductors in an assigned territory, rather than aboard an individual train. This transition can enable a faster and more efficient response to service needs throughout the network and has the potential to improve safety. These proposed changes also have the potential to benefit rail employees. Today, conductors often spend many nights away from home and are subject to unpredictable schedules. A ground-based role may enable a more predictable, consistent and higher quality-of-life position, like many other railroad employees, such as signalmen and track maintenance workers.

Railroads must be able to innovate and compete.

The long-term viability of freight rail depends on the industry’s ability to adapt and compete in a rapidly changing transportation sector. Technology and modern staffing models are making freight railroads safer, more efficient and more productive. Crew size mandates would hinder these gains and divert traffic from rail to trucks, which are less fuel efficient, create congestion and further damage the nation’s highway system.

Congress must reject legislative efforts to require at least two people in a train crew and instead encourage innovation. Privately owned freight railroads must be allowed, in partnership with rail labor, to determine operating models most conducive to optimal safety and service performance. Federal prescriptions lacking empirical justification must not be made the law. Railroads are committed to good faith negotiations on issues — including the implementation of new technologies and train operations that maximize safety benefits and efficiencies — with their employees in the forum in which those issues have historically been resolved.