New Rule to Thwart Railroad Efforts to Cut Train Crews

A train crossing in California. (Art Wager/Getty Images)

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OMAHA, Neb. — Railroads will be required to maintain two-person crews under a new rule announced July 27 that will thwart industry efforts to cut crews down to one person.

The Federal Railroad Administration said in a rule published in the Federal Register that railroads will be required to continue using two-person crews in most circumstances as they haul all kinds of cargo, including hazardous materials, across the country. But there will be an exception to allow short-line railroads that have already been using one-man crews to continue using them if they can prove it is safe.

The railroads have argued that they should have the discretion to operate trains with only one person and move conductors out of locomotives to ground-based jobs in places where automatic braking systems have been installed. The proposal has been a key issue in the deadlocked contract talks between freight railroads and their 12 unions that are currently being reviewed by a special board of arbitrators that President Joe Biden appointed earlier this month.

Railroad labor groups have adamantly opposed one-person crews for years due to both safety concerns and preserving jobs. Labor agreements requiring two-person crews have been in place for roughly 30 years at the major railroads, although many short-line railroads operate with one-man crews already.

The arbitrators reviewing the contract talks that began more than two years ago have held hearings this week to hear proposals from both sides. Federal law prohibits rail unions from going on strike until mid-September while that board develops a set of recommendations and both sides have a chance to negotiate a deal based on those recommendations.

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Previously, the FRA issued a similar rule requiring two-person crews in 2016, but that rule was later abandoned during the Trump administration because the agency said at the time that there wasn’t enough evidence to show that two-person crews are safer.

In the proposed rule announced July 27, regulators said the second crew member in the cab of locomotives can play a key role in helping monitor train operations and help make sure that safety rules are being followed.

Freight railroads had argued that the installation of a system that can stop trains automatically in certain circumstances, called Positive Train Control, made it unnecessary to have a second person in the locomotive.

The railroad industry has emphasized that crash data doesn’t show that two-man crews are safer than one-person crews. But labor groups argued that the data can’t show how safe one-person crews are because most railroads use two-person crews now.