Good news is sometimes slow in coming

Written by William C. Keppen, Jr.
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Norfolk Southern conductor. NS photo

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.

Fifteen years or so ago, several freight railroads experimented some of these fatigue countermeasures, but they were always defined as pilot projects, not mutual agreements between management and labor, so many faded away with the passing of time. Placing them in agreement form demonstrates management and labor recognition that these are safety problems that can be addressed, with mutual cooperation.

Having championed the cause and aggressively advocated for such measures for 20-plus years, without not making much progress, I could hardly believe what I was reading. Yes, these fatigue countermeasures have been slow in coming, and yes they may not yet be prevalent among the Class I railroads, but we have a start, that’s important.

For the benefit of those that may not be aware of this good news, I have paraphrased the content of the agreement terms and hope that others engage in similar efforts.

In addition to all the “usual” provisions related to wage increases and the like, there is an Article V – PREDICTABLE WORKFORCE SCHEDULING, and an Article VI – WORK/REST INITIATIVES, along with several subsections. Please allow me to posit on the importance of these provisions, which individually would make little difference, but in total, will improve safety, productivity and quality of life for train operating crews and their families:

PREDICTABLE WORKFORCE SCHEDULING (PWS) – “PWS permits engineers to select jobs weekly and provides engineers predictable scheduling and income stability because their job assignment cannot be changed until the next weekly cycle.” An actual time frame for assignment changes assures job schedule predictability on a weekly basis. A meaningful piece of the total package.

Section 1 – Assignment Database, Section 2 – Submitting Preferences, Section 3 – Job Assignments, and Section 4 – Vacation provide details on how engineers are advised on pool and extra-board assignments are adjusted, when and how to submit assignment bids, and how they will be notified of job assignment changes and awards. Sections 1 through 3 deal with work assignments and the plan for establishing predictability, a very important fatigue countermeasure.

Section 4 – Vacation: This provision is a common-sense solution to a decades-old practice of beginning vacations at 12:01 a.m., Monday morning and ending them at 11:59 p.m., Sunday evening. It is a well-known fact that many engineers, conductors and trainmen ducked work assignments on the weekend prior to vacations starting at 12:01 a.m., Monday morning. That wasn’t good for the railroad, for others that had to go to work unexpectedly, or even for those who were ducking work assignments as it reduced their paychecks. With weekends being the most important time period for family bonding and activities, why has it taken more than 100 years to move vacation start time to 12:01 Saturday morning? That is an open question. Maybe it is something as simple as we, railroaders, are known to be change resistant.

ARTICLE VI – WORK/REST INITIATIVES, is, in my opinion, the frosting on the cake; it states: “The parties recognize that the current process for manning and scheduling pools and extra boards should be modified to provide engineers more predictable work/rest schedules. The parties agree that work/rest schedules will be designed with the following principles in mind:

  • ensure availability of a sufficient number of engineers.
  • provide engineers predictable time off.
  • minimize fluctuation in earnings to the engineers.
  • minimize cost increases to the carrier.
  • adapted to account for differences in pool/extra board size, types of assignments, and operational factors at individual locations.

While I could not gain access to agreements between this railroad and the other national labor union that represents train crew members, I am confident the same agreement provisions are in place for their members. I would like to lead a round of applause for parties that fashioned and agreed to these provisions. As far as I know, they are unique to this particular carrier, one of seven U.S. Class I freight railroads. As such, they afford a road map for other freight railroads. If they have not already entered into agreements of this nature, now is the time to do it, in the interest of safety, productivity and quality of life for their train operating crews and their families, as well as their own self-interests.

William C. Keppen Jr., a retired BLET (Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen) Vice President and third-generation locomotive engineer at BNSF and predecessors Chicago, Burlington & Quincy and Burlington Northern, is an independent transportation advocate with experience in fatigue countermeasures programs. A railroad industry veteran of almost 50 years, Keppen provides safety analyses for Confidential Close Call Reporting System (C3RS) programs in freight, commuter, and light rail transportation. Keppen was Project Coordinator for BNSF’s Fatigue Countermeasures Program, and former BLE General Chairman for the BN Northlines GCA. “I started working on human-factor-caused train accidents in 1980,” he says. “It has been a struggle. I would like to think I have made a difference, but there are still far to many human-factor-caused train ‘accidents,’ which I prefer to refer to as ‘preventable incidents.’”