July 29, 2014 4:45 PM, EDT
BNSF Presents One-Person-Crew Plan to Union
Jobs to Be Replaced With Collision Avoidance Technology
Mike Fuentes/Bloomberg News

A controversial BNSF Railway Co. labor contract proposal that would eventually cut some crews to one person from two is being outlined to union members this month ahead of a ratification vote.

The agreement with the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, also known as SMART, could eliminate conductors’ jobs on t

rains equipped with collision avoidance technology known as positive train control. Conductors would be supplanted by a “master conductor” to cover service needs, such as inspections, on three or four trains in a confined geographic area.

The agreement is the first that would cut train crew sizes to one, in line with long-stated goals by freight railroads to make that cost-cutting step. The tentative deal was announced in July as U.S. freight railroads reported higher second-quarter profits and operating ratios as low as 63.5.

Members covered by the proposal “will continue to play a key role in transportation operations for decades to come while enjoying the benefits of increased work opportunities,” said the letter from General Chairperson Randy Knutson and seven other union officials.

The plan is controversial in part because national union officials oppose the crew size reduction, as shown in a letter from John Previsich, president of the SMART Transportation Division.

“The only safe and secure operation of any train includes a minimum of two people on each and every crew,” he wrote on the union’s website. “No one would permit an airliner to fly with one pilot, even though the planes can fly themselves. Trains, which cannot operate themselves, should be no different.”

No ratification date has been announced for the proposal, which covers 60% of BNSF tracks.