BNSF, SMART seek historic crew consist revision

Written by Frank N. Wilner, Capitol Hill Contributing Editor

A gutsy, proactive, and far-sighted collaboration between BNSF and a general committee of its largest labor union has produced a tentative agreement to allow freight trains equipped with Positive Train Control (PTC) to operate as early as next year with a lone engineer in the cab and no conventional on-board conductor between specific territories in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest.

Such PTC-equipped trains and their engineer would be monitored for safety compliance by a newly designated master conductor working from a fixed or mobile location other than the locomotive cab. The agreement memorializes—and for the first time in a rail labor contract—that the conductor is in charge of train operation.

The tentative agreement, which would boost significantly the pay of conductors and other ground service workers, was negotiated between BNSF and General Committee 001 of the Transportation Division of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation (SMART) Union (formerly the United Transportation Union). Ground service workers, in addition to conductors, include brakemen, helpers, switchmen, and yardmen. All are subject to promotion to conductor.

The SMART general committee represents ground service workers in the territories of BNSF predecessors Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, Northern Pacific, and St. Louis-San Francisco, as well as switching yards operated by BNSF predecessor Great Northern. The agreement would be in force only on those territories.

Improved pay and benefits, plus full-blanket furlough protection, would be provided all affected ground service workers in exchange for an amended crew consist agreement to be phased in over two years, beginning Jan. 1, 2015. The ratification vote will begin in mid-August, with results announced in September.

The agreement also would permit trains now requiring a brakeman or helper to be operated with a minimum of one on-board conductor or one yard foreman. For hybrid yard service, where the locomotive is operated by remote control beltpacks and on-board controls during the same tour of duty, the minimum crew would be one foreman and one helper—one qualified to operate on-board locomotive controls.

Through freights not having operational PTC will continue to require a minimum of one conductor and an engineer.

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineer and Trainmen’s existing agreement with BNSF stipulates additional pay “when the engineer works engineer-only.” The BLET has a history of negotiating engineer-only agreements in exchange for higher pay, but on BNSF and other Class I railroads, a SMART crew-consist agreement requires a minimum of one conductor and an engineer in the cab. Those crew-consist agreements are nearing expiration, putting SMART-represented conductors at risk of losing jobs if railroads seek engineer-only operation with no enhanced position for the conductor, or choose to substitute an assistant engineer for the conductor.

Although the Railway Labor Act permits train and engine service workers to belong to either SMART or the BLET, SMART holds the BNSF contract for ground service workers and the BLET for engineers.

This tentative agreement, which may be a harbinger of similar ones on other BNSF territories and other Class I railroads, comes as union efforts to legislate or impose by regulation mandatory two-person crews are failing. Such legislation introduced in Congress has scant support, with no prospects for committee mark-up.

Although Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo, a former union officer, vowed regulation requiring two qualified crew members in each cab, the agency reportedly has run into a roadblock at the Office of Management and Budget—from which federal agencies must obtain permission to pursue initiatives—for failure adequately to demonstrate that such a regulation is warranted. No evidence has surfaced that a second person in the locomotive cab contributes to a more-safe operation, while evidence exists that the second person in the cab can cause a safety hazard. Railroads also have telegraphed an intent to fight in federal court any FRA proposed rulemaking. Congress also could block the FRA effort by withholding funding.

SMART’s Transportation Division has been asking state legislatures, most Republican controlled, to impose two-person crew requirements, with little success. States have authority so long as a federal law or regulation is not in force.

This tentative agreement provides for a snap-back—as if it had never existed—if legislation, regulation, or court action “materially” impairs the agreement.

Almost 6,000 SMART members—some 15% of SMART’s total freight railroad employed membership, and some 60% of BNSF ground service employees—are affected by the tentative BNSF territorial agreement.

It provides that where a conductor no longer is in the cab of a PTC-equipped through freight train, supervision by the conductor of the engineer and train operation is to be accomplished by remote means—which, someday, could include aerial drones with cameras, according to a side-letter accompanying the tentative agreement.

In designating a “Master Conductor,” the agreement provides for additional supervisory responsibilities for safe train operation throughout assigned territory, plus responsibility by the Master Conductor for crew transportation between trains, yards, terminals, and off-duty points.

The BNSF offer is among the most lucrative ever paid for work-rules reform.

Extensive career income protection assures that “no protected ground service employee shall ever be subject to involuntary furlough.” Reserve status positions will be created, further assuring that those protected and unable to hold any position in ground, engine, dispatcher, or yardmaster service, will be provided 100% of their compensation and benefits.

Additionally, ground service employees will have an option of choosing voluntary reserve status, assuring them 75% of their wages when not working. Those in reserve status would not be required to report to a railroad facility, but required to remain qualified for duty while in reserve status and awaiting recall.

Furthermore, the tentative agreement provides that downturns in business will not adversely affect protected ground service employees, who, rather than involuntarily furloughed, will be assigned to a work retention board, with pay and benefits, while awaiting recall.

There is a $5,000 signing bonus, and all ground service entry rates of pay will be boosted to 100% immediately, conductor certification pay will be increased, and vacation and personal leave benefits will be enhanced.

Performance bonuses—for which middle management and locomotive engineers are now eligible—are built into the agreement for all ground service employees. BNSF also intends to offer, at its option, $100,000 lump-sum separation packages to certain protected ground service employees.

SMART International Representative John Babler, who participated in negotiations, said decades-old labor agreements with BNSF and other Class I railroads mandating an engineer and conductor on every train start, “have just about run their course, and the protections afforded may be subject to serious challenges by the carriers. The proposed agreement provides job security for decades into the future.”

BNSF says the agreement’s intent is to “reserve substantial work opportunities (many of them new opportunities) for BNSF ground service employees, and BNSF is absolutely committed to and shall honor this spirit in the agreement.”

BNSF calls the agreement “a new, transformational approach to railroad operations, pursuant to which the Master Conductor has a broad array of responsibilities and opportunities and may more fully deploy his/her talents and skills to advance the safety, quality, and efficiency of BNSF operations.”

SMART Transportation Division President John Previsich did not respond to a request for comment. Although a BNSF official said Previsich “indicated” he “would not oppose” the general committee’s tentative agreement, and Babler said Previsich was “complimentary” of an April 30 Power Point presentation on it, Previsich said, via his Transportation Division website July 18, that he remains committed to “two people on each and every crew.” He did not specify a conductor, as opposed to an assistant engineer, as the second person.

Prior to the merger creating SMART, the UTU won a federal court order blocking railroads from negotiating new crew consist agreements through national handling, ruling that crew consist be negotiated railroad-by-railroad, which the tentative agreement seeks to accomplish.

BLET National Legislative Director John Tolman did not respond to a request for comment.

Federal Railroad Administration spokesperson Kevin Thompson said, “FRA continues to believe that the highest level of safety is ensured with the use of multiple-person crews. We look forward to learning more about the BNSF/SMART proposal and how it supports the intent of our rulemaking—protecting the public.”

PTC is a crash-avoidance safety overlay system utilizing the satellite global positioning system (GPS), wireless communications, and computers to prevent collisions and derailments by automatically applying brakes on trains exceeding authorized speeds, about to run a red signal, violate a work zone, or run through an improperly aligned switch.

PTC’s extensive capabilities are said to make the second crew member unnecessary in the cab. The National Transportation Safety Board, which has long advocated PTC installation, does not object to elimination of the on-board conductor when PTC is installed. Amtrak, commuter railroads, and many smaller freight railroads long have operated with a lone engineer in the cab with no demonstrable reductions in train safety.

See the full 38-page tenative agreement by clicking HERE.

© 2014 Simmons-Boardman Publishing Corporation

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