By CARL GREEN
Belleville – Freight trains cannot be operated safely with just a single engineer, as seen in the disastrous Canadian derailment that killed 47 people in July, so U.S. rail workers now are proposing legislation in Congress to require minimum two-person crews.
United Transportation Union Local 1402 in the Metro East is among those working for HR 3040, called the Safe Freight Act.
“We always have two-man crews,” noted Bill Mathes, the local’s legislative chairman. “You can’t do a brake test with just one man.”
After the accident, Canada acted to require two-person crews, but the U.S. has not done the same, with the result being that at times, a train will cross the border into the U.S. and one of the two crew members will get off, Mathes said.
ROUNDING UP SUPPORT
U.S. Rep. William Enyart (D-Belleville) is one of 28 co-sponsors of the legislation. It might have little chance in the Republican-controlled House except that two of the co-sponsors are Republicans – the influential Don Young of Alaska and Peter King of New York. It now is sitting in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Mathes is rounding up support among other unions for the bill, which would require that all freight trains have at least one certified engineer and one certified conductor. He discussed it at the November meeting of the Southwestern Illinois Central Labor Council.
The derailment happened the night of July 6 in the town of Lac-Mégantic in Quebec, where a one-man train operated by the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway was left unattended and full of oil being transported.
The train slipped its brake and rolled into the town, causing fiery explosions, spilling millions of gallons of oil and destroying several city blocks.
After the accident, the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration issued new safety rules regarding unattended trains, but the rules do not include maintaining a two-man crew.
In Canada, the national rail agency,, Transport Canada is building a case for federal prosecution of the Montreal, Main and Atlantic Railway, saying it may have violated existing regulations. Transport Canada has already acted to curb one-man crews and unattended trains.
The Safe Freight Act has been opposed by industry groups such as the Association of American Railroads, saying it overlooks “the realities of current industry practices” and the industry’s overall safety record.
But the UTU replies that a one-man crew cannot handle many potential threats, such as:
• One man cannot perform a Class 1 air brake test.
• One man cannot act as a first responder in a road crossing collision.
• One man cannot make an inspection if the train derails or breaks into two parts, with the possible release of hazardous materials.
• One man cannot inspect the train when a car breaks down.
The union adds: “Freight train crews work long hours, day and night, with few set shifts, and are on-call 24/7. With as little as one hour and 15 minutes notice, we are required to report to work for a 12-hour shift, often operating trains laden with hazardous materials.
“Fatigue in the freight railroad industry is our number one safety problem, and having two crew members is the main way that we help mitigate fatigue,” UTU said.
“Having two crew members is also the best way to assure compliance with our complex operating rules – rules such as properly securing your train so it doesn’t roll away and destroy a town.”
Mathes said the use of a one-man crew has increasingly become the focus of investigations into the disaster.
“One-person crews in the U.S. are extremely rare,” he wrote in a media statement. “Normally, the trains you see rolling through our community are crewed by an engineer and a conductor, both of whom have specific duties and play a vital role in the safe operations of the train. Yet, as the tragic events in Canada have taught us, there are rogue railroads out there that push the envelope when it comes to employee and public safety.
“As a railroader, I can personally attest to the fact that two sets of eyes, ears and voices are much safer than one. We all enjoy the enhanced safety when we fly of having two crew members in the cockpit of an airplane. Shouldn’t the same be true for a train?”
CONTACT YOUR REPRESENTATIVE
UTU is encouraging union members and the public at large to contact their Congressional representatives to voice their support for the rules change.
To contact your representative, simply go the union’s website at www.utu.org. Look for a link called “HR 3040 Two-Person Crew Bill” in the lower right corner of the homepage. You will need to provide your street address and zip code to find your representative.