Having worked in the industry for 50 years, if you consider my postretirement involvement, I will be the first to admit that today’s railroads are, in many respects, much safer than they were when I was first employed as a locomotive fireman in 1970. Credit for that goes to railroad management, employees and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). However, in my opinion, greater progress has been impeded for economic reasons or organization priorities—more simply put, the pursuit of self interests. Having said that, it’s time to move to the point of this article.
Author: William C. Keppen, Jr.
Date: Sept. 27, 2019. News media outlets report potential life threatening situations with three different Class I railroad freight trains blocking railroad grade crossings, sometimes for hours at a time. These events seem to be increasing, both in number and length of time. Americans are not just inconvenienced. Lives are being place at great risk when a blocked crossing impedes emergency service providers from assisting people in need of help.
A recently issued arbitration decision directs New Jersey Transit (NJT) to re-employ Thomas Gallagher, the locomotive engineer who in 2016 ran an NJT commuter train into a bumping post and onto the platform at Hoboken Terminal. While the arbitrator found that the engineer “… bore some responsibility for the crash,” she also found that, “… NJ Transit had failed to follow its own procedures for screening engineers in his case.”
“According to the BNSF employment records for the 52-year old male striking train engineer, a pre-employment physical examination and health questionnaire dated June 28, 1994, identified no significant medical conditions.” Hold that thought.
If one looks at recent developments, the Federal Railroad Administration’s withdrawal of the two-person-crew-minimum NPRM (Notice of Proposed Rulemaking), it may seem “logical” to say the march toward one-person crews is accelerating. However, that may be an illusion.
Six out of the seven Class I freight railroads in operating in the U.S. (including CN’s and Canadian Pacific’s subsidiaries) have implemented or are in the process of transitioning to Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR). While programs and processes will certainly vary from one railroad to another, all are likely designed around five foundation principles, as defined in 2016 by CP and the late Hunter Harrison during its aborted merger attempt with Norfolk Southern.
What’s the Good News? At least one large Class I freight railroad has finally codified some meaningful fatigue countermeasure provisions with its train operating employees, in an actual written agreement. And, yes, that is Good News, although it has been very slow in coming.
I knew Hunter Harrison when he was a Burlington Northern trainmaster and I was a BLET Local Chairman, all those many years ago. Today, as Hunter’s Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) is rolled out on six of the seven Class I railroads, I’ve come to believe that PSRis not a destination, but a never-ending journey. At least that’s how I see it.
A recent internal Transport Canada (TC) document warns of the safety risks posed by exhausted crew members on trains, even as Alberta pursues a plan to ratchet up already-booming shipments of crude by rail.
Timely accident investigations are critical to the future of safe transportation operations, for a number of reasons. First, they must begin expeditiously. As the clock runs, evidence can deteriorate or become corrupted. Witness memories of events fade, sometimes to the detriment of actual fact-finding. Second, the search for cause factors and efforts to remediate are delayed, leaving people and property at risk of more accidents and incidents caused by the same risk factors. Third, as time passes, other accidents and incidents demand investigation, putting a strain on investigatory resources.