Innovation helps our industry evolve while empowering our workers.
Over the past generation, technology has transformed America’s freight railroad industry, ensuring a smarter, safer, more efficient network. Modern operational models and technological advancements are enabling railroads to evolve how they deploy their resources — including employees — to maximize safety, reliability and productivity in the face of a rapidly evolving freight transportation sector.
Through collective bargaining — a longstanding process used by railroads and rail labor to negotiate wages, benefits and work rules — railroads look to modernize existing staffing models. The Class I railroads’ crew size proposal, which would transition the conductor from the cab of the locomotive to a ground-based position in some circumstances, will allow railroads to maximize the potential of their workforce while ensuring the highest level of safety and improving quality of life for their employees.
A Demonstrated Record of Safety
Safety is and always will be a top priority for railroads. 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 Railroads, 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.
U.S. rail safety regulators have affirmed that freight trains can be operated as safely with one crew member as they can be with two. In fact, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) recently rescinded a proposal requiring two people in the cab of a locomotive, concluding that federal crew size regulation is unnecessary.
Rail Technology and Alternative Train Staffing Models
Modern operational models, record investment and advancements in technology have transformed the way railroads work. The changes are not just about how railroads move freight, but also how they improve the safety and reliability of their operations. While the data and experiences here and abroad show that single-person crews can and do operate trains as safely as two person crews, as the FRA concluded, Class I railroads are proposing to transition — over time — to single person crews only where Positive Train Control (PTC) is implemented.
PTC is designed to automatically stop a train before certain accidents caused by human error occur, including train-to-train collisions, derailments due to excessive speed and train movements through misaligned switches or unauthorized zones. Railroads also use “alerter” technology that automatically brings a train to a stop if a locomotive operator — known as an engineer — becomes incapacitated for any reason, such as injury or illness. Technologies like these continue to enhance the safety of the rail network.
Evolving the Rail Workforce to Meet the Demands of Tomorrow
Over the years, freight train crew sizes in the U.S. have gradually been reduced from five to the typical two — an engineer and a conductor. During this same period, the railroad industry has dramatically improved its safety record.
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.
Achieving Positive Outcomes Through Collective Bargaining
The American freight railroad industry is extremely safe, efficient and cost-effective in large part because of its ability to adapt and innovate in the face of changing times. Collective bargaining provides an opportunity for railroads and their workers to assess existing labor agreements and modernize them to meet the realities and changing needs of the economy, rail customers and employees.
From the advent of diesel-electric locomotives to today’s advanced signaling systems, the modernization of work rules and employee duties have always been negotiated and safely implemented as part of the collective bargaining process. As railroads work with their employees to ensure the continued success of the industry, the upcoming collective bargaining round will be a critical test of its ability to adapt and innovate at the speed of today’s rapidly transforming world.