DOT to require two crew members on freight trains

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Rail union groups are cheering a Biden Administration ruling today that will require a second crewmember on all trains in the name of strengthening rail safety.

The decision ends a long-running debate that was firmly opposed by railroad industry groups such as the Association of American Railroads (AAR), which represents the major freight railroads of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, as well as Amtrak. However, those groups lost leverage in the wake of the freight train derailment and toxic chemical spill that hit East Palestine, Ohio, in February, 2023, and shone a brighter spotlight on the industry’s safety standards.

The new policy comes in the shape of a final rule establishing minimum safety requirements for the size of train crews, as determined by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).

According to the FRA, its move closes a loophole that had previously allowed railroads to initiate single-crew operations without performing a rigorous risk assessment, mitigating known risks, or notifying the FRA itself. In contrast, the new policy establishes minimum standards and a federal oversight process allowing for public input by communities and railroad workers during FRA’s decision-making process on whether to grant special approval for one-person train crew operations. 

In the FRA’s view, a second crewmember performs important safety functions that could be lost when reducing crew size to a single person, the agency said. “Common sense tells us that large freight trains, some of which can be over three miles long, should have at least two crew members on board – and now there’s a federal regulation in place to ensure trains are safely staffed,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a release. “This rule requiring safe train crew sizes is long overdue, and we are proud to deliver this change that will make workers, passengers, and communities safer.”

In the face of the ruling, the AAR criticized the new policy for lacking evidence connecting crew size to rail safety. Instead, rail carriers prefer to pursue safety by prioritizing data-driven safety improvements through extensive employee training and private investments in technology and infrastructure, the group said. “FRA is doubling down on an unfounded and unnecessary regulation that has no proven connection to rail safety,” AAR President and CEO Ian Jefferies said in a release. “Instead of prioritizing data-backed solutions to build a safer future for rail, FRA is looking to the past and upending the collective bargaining process.”

But there was celebration from the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), a union representing some 51,500 U.S. train service employees, which said it had long advocated for a federal rule requiring that trains be staffed by a minimum of one certified engineer and a certified conductor. “Eleven states, concerned about the public’s safety have now instituted a two-person crew requirement. Rail safety legislation now pending in the U.S. Senate also calls for a minimum of two people operating a freight train,” BLET National President Eddie Hall said in a release. “Today’s announcement is an important step in making railroading safer in every state, rather than a piecemeal approach. The administration promised to take this action and today it happened.”





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