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Are two-person crews less safe than a single engineer?

Written by Frank N. Wilner, Capitol Hill Contributing Editor

News item: The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) ordered MTA Metro-North Railroad to have two qualified crewmembers in the lead cab until Metro-North’s signal system is updated to ensure automatic train control (ATC) slows trains automatically if the engineer fails to adhere to a speed reduction requirement greater than 20 mph below maximum allowable speed.

At the time of its deadly derailment Dec. 1 at Spuyten Duyvil near New York City, Metro-North’s ATC was coded only to slow or stop a train if the engineer failed to acknowledge awareness of a signal indication.

So why hasn’t the FRA similarly ordered two crewmembers in the cab of Amtrak trains operating over the Northeast Corridor (NEC) between Washington, D.C. and Boston; Amtrak’s Keystone Corridor linking Philadelphia with Harrisburg, Pa.; Amtrak’s Michigan corridor between Porter, Ind., and Kalamazoo, Mich.; Amtrak’s long-distance trains operating on freight railroad track; on other commuter railroads; or on all freight railroads?

The answer for Amtrak-owned track is that over most of the NEC, where top speeds are 150 mph, and on the Keystone Corridor, where top speeds are 110 mph, Amtrak has in place ATC and an Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System (ACSES) that enforces speed reductions and signal adherence. ACSES is designed to enforce, automatically, a speed reduction prior to entering curves. On Amtrak’s Michigan corridor, with top speeds of 110 mph, Amtrak employs an Incremental Train Control System (ITCS), which enforces signal authority as well as posted and temporary speed limits.

Amtrak utilizes a single engineer in the cab over the NEC, Keystone Corridor, and Michigan corridor, and, in some cases—on runs fewer than six hours—a single engineer for long-distance and state-supported corridors operating over freight-railroad-owned track not equipped with automatic enforcement. As will be explained, there is evidence that single-person crews (in the cab) are safer than two-person crews.

On other passenger railroads, such as commuter operator Los Angeles Metrolink and Chicago Metra, a single engineer is in the cab. Metrolink employs Automatic Train Stop (ATS), which, for an older version, enforces signal adherence; and, for a newer version, also enforces speed reductions of greater than 20 mph from maximum allowable track speed.

On Chicago Metra, much of which operates over freight-railroad owned track, there is wide use of versions of ATS and ATC, which slow or stop a train only if an engineer fails manually to acknowledge alerts. Much of Chicago Metra’s safety overlay is decades old; its routes over BNSF and Union Pacific, for example, use technology based on a former Pennsylvania Railroad design.

On Class I railroads, all freight trains are operated with a minimum of two crew members in the cab—an engineer and conductor. While almost 100% of that track, where maximum speed is 79 mph, has no technology that automatically enforces signal adherence or speed reductions, the two-member crews are in place by a national collective bargaining agreement and not by government fiat.

A casual observer might wonder—given FRA’s order affecting Metro-North, which is clothed as a safety necessity—why there is not a federal requirement for two-person crews on all commuter properties, Amtrak, and freight railroads where technology is not in place to slow or stop a train automatically if an engineer fails to adhere to speed limits or wayside signals.

That answer—albeit not shared by labor organizations, whose members pay dues to protect job security—is that there is not a demonstrated correlation between train safety and the number of crewmembers. In fact, there is evidence to conclude that two qualified crew members in the cab can be less safe than a single-person crew.


• In June 2012, three crewmembers died in a head-on collision of two freight trains near Goodwell, Okla. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined the eastbound train crew’s “lack of response to wayside signals” was the cause, citing the engineer’s “inability to see and correctly interpret the signals,” and the “conductor’s disengagement from his duties.”

• In May 2011, two CSX crew members died in a rear-end collision in Mineral Springs, N.C. The NTSB cited failure of the two-person crew on the striking train to comply with speed restrictions.

• In April 2011, two BNSF crewmembers died in a rear-end collision in Red Oak, Ia. The NTSB concluded that the two-person crew of the striking train failed to comply with wayside indicators.

• In January 2011, two CSX crewmembers were injured near Westville, Ind., in a rear-end collision. The NTSB cited failure by the two-person crew of the striking train “to maintain vigilant attention” to signals, “communicate effectively,” and “comply with speed restrictions.”

• In September 2010, near Twin Harbors, Minn., five Canadian National crew members were injured in a head-on accident. The NTSB concluded that the two-person crew of the southbound freight entered a main line after failing properly to execute an after-arrival track authority.

• In November 2008, in Rialto, Calif., a Metrolink commuter train with two engineers in the cab failed to stop at a red signal, sideswiping a passing freight train.

• In January 2005, in Graniteville, S.C., a Norfolk Southern train encountered an improperly lined switch, resulting in an accident releasing chlorine gas that killed the engineer and eight others, injured more than 500, and required the evacuation of some 5,400 nearby residents. The NTSB concluded that failure and inattention of a multi-person crew to align the switch properly was the cause.

• In April 2002, two people were killed when a BNSF freight train collided with a Metrolink commuter train in Placentia, Calif. The NTSB concluded the freight train’s two crew members failed to obey a stop signal.

Labor organizations are correct that, in some of these cases, crew fatigue, medical conditions, or use of personal electronic devices such as cellphones were contributing factors. However, the FRA has been active in addressing these problems, and each effort dilutes union objections to one-person crews. The FRA banned use by crew members of job-distracting electronic devices. While crew fatigue remains a thorny issue given the industry’s 24/7 operating environment, the FRA has taken actions to ensure operating crews are permitted more undisturbed rest periods.

More controversial is an NTSB recommendation that inward facing cameras be installed on trains to keep watch on crew member activities—and they increasingly are being utilized to help detect crew member fatigue and even medical conditions, as well as unauthorized crew member activity that could cause a distraction. Federal courts have set aside union objections that such cameras invade privacy; in many workplaces nationwide, workers are under the gaze of cameras. Separately, following the Dec. 1 Metro-North derailment, two usually labor friendly Democrats (Chuck Schumer of New York and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut) demanded that the FRA institute a rulemaking to require inward facing cameras, with audio capture, in locomotive cabs.

The assault by railroads on two-person crews is on-going. Metrolink wrote Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) in June 2010 that a 16-month pilot project to use two-person crews on 13% of its train starts did not result in improved safety. Metrolink cited studies by the FRA, NTSB, and California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) that said two crewmembers in the cab “can have an unintended contrary effect on safety due to potential for distraction.”

In a 2009 report, the CPUC concluded, “[a] second set of eyes provides only minimal safety improvement and should be employed only on a temporary basis, given the fact it could aggravate engineer distraction, and consequently, engineer error.”

The emergence of Positive Train Control (PTC) bolsters arguments that two crew members are unnecessary. PTC is a safety overlay system that substitutes advanced technology for engineer inattention or distraction. PTC utilizes global positioning satellites (GPS), Wi-Fi, and digital technology to prevent collisions by automatically applying a train’s brakes when the train exceeds authorized speeds, or is about to run a red signal, violate a work zone, or run through a switch left in the wrong position. PTC also has potential to improve productivity and service-quality enhancements in addition to reducing train accidents.

Congress, in the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, set Dec. 31, 2015, as the date for PTC implementation on track carrying passengers and freight labeled as a TIH (toxic inhalation hazard). The FRA initially identified some 70,000 miles of track for PTC installation, but since has cut that mileage to some 60,000—less than half of the nation’s 160,000 miles of track.

The Association of American Railroads says that while its members are pressing to design and install PTC, they are unlikely to meet the Dec. 31, 2015 deadline owing to delays in obtaining and installing hardware and software, siting of communication towers, availability of the needed communications spectrum, and necessary system reliability testing.

Despite the PTC requirement, labor organizations recently encouraged introduction in the House of Representatives of legislation (H.R. 3040) to require two-person crews nationwide on all trains. The legislation, introduced by Rep. Michael Michaud (D-Me.), fails to provide evidence of how trains operated by a lone engineer are less safe. While the bill has 39 Democratic co-sponsors in the Republican-controlled House, only one Republican (Peter King of New York) signed on, making its progress problematic. In fact, the NTSB has not opposed phasing out of two-person crews as other safety enhancements are implemented.

Freight railroads, meanwhile, are seeking to eliminate a collectively bargained requirement for two-person crews on freight trains, and installation of PTC on much of the freight rail network is likely to accelerate that effort. Previous efforts to amend national freight railroad collective bargaining agreements to permit a one-person crew failed after a federal court ruled that the agreements were made on a railroad-by-railroad basis and are not subject to national collective bargaining. Whether individual railroads will seek to amend the contracts individually remains to be seen.

The United Transportation Union (UTU) contends that with increased capacity constraints on freight rail track, the second crew member is essential to speed the repair of air hoses and coupling devices that fail en-route; and that given the high volume of freight trains on fewer track-miles, any train delays on main line track almost immediately cause serious and cascading delays that stretch hundreds of miles. The UTU also asserts that in the unlikely event of a derailment or accident, two crew members are needed to communicate quickly with dispatchers and emergency responders—especially if one is injured.

Note that labor unions support PTC installation, which they call “a small price to pay for saving lives and limbs.” The price is likely also to include, eventually, and where PTC is implemented, the jobs of conductors, who are the second crew members of freight trains.

Note, also, that former UTU President Paul Thompson, in making a 2007 merger agreement with the Sheet Metal Workers International Association, sought to limit the ability of UTU officers on individual railroads from entering into agreements unilaterally by requiring that all individual railroad agreements be subject to review by the merged union’s general president. That effort has been the subject of binding arbitration that has yet to be decided. In the past, railroads entered into agreements with union officers on individual railroads to eliminate jobs in exchange for income protection, bonuses to remaining crew members, and lucrative buyouts.

Indeed, technology, while enhancing railroad safety and improving productivity, has significantly trimmed operating-union members. This technology, which has allowed crew size to shrink from as many as seven per train to as few as one today, has included the advent of automatic couplers; diesel locomotives that replaced labor-intensive operation of steam power; computers that eliminated reams of paperwork handled in stations by clerks and en-route by conductors; installation of automatic crossing gates; air (and now electronic) brakes that eliminated a need for brakemen; replacement of cabooses with end-of-train devices to measure brake pressure and provide rear-end warning lights; and use of remote control in yard operations, which is on the cusp of being extended to short-distance collection and delivery of freight cars outside of yards.

Since 1970, for example, UTU membership has declined from some 181,000 to under 65,000, and PTC installation could cost thousands more jobs. This explains union support for two-person crew requirements. But had those employment reductions not taken place, the wave of bankruptcies that smothered the railroad industry during the 1970s likely would have enveloped many more carriers. Wage and benefits costs to railroads have declined since the 1970s from more than half of all costs to less than 25% today, which makes possible sorely needed new capital investment in modern track, structures, and equipment.

Alas, as Prince Niccolo Machiavelli observed half a millennium ago, “There is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful to success, nor more dangerous to manage than the creation of a new system.” But as the architects of modern technological innovation have proven, it can be, and is, done.

Policymakers should separate discussion of PTC and other safety technology from the debate on crew size, as evidence is strong that there is no demonstrated correlation between the number of crew members in the cab and train safety.

(Frank N. Wilner is author of Railroad Mergers: History, Analysis, Insight; Amtrak: Past, Present, Future; and Understanding the Railway Labor Act, all available at www.transalert.com)

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