Rail unions push for 2-person crews

WASHINGTON (PAI)—Relying on a campaign promise from Democratic President Joe Biden, the nation’s freight rail unions are renewing their push for mandatory two-person crews on all freight trains.
Needless to say, the freight railroads are resisting fiercely. They convinced former GOP Oval Office occupant Donald Trump’s regime to halt a previous effort in its tracks in 2019, by stopping a planned Federal Railroad Administration rule-making launched under the Obama-Biden administration.
What the railroads really want is to cut costs by cutting workers, down to just the train engineer or—as one Burlington Northern Santa Fe honcho told a corporate conference in Chicago several years ago, nobody at all.
While lobbying for eliminating workers, the rail carriers are also implementing a system called Precision Scheduled Railroading, which they claim will cut the need for a second person on a train crew.
The rail unions, led by Smart’s Transportation Division, the former United Transportation Union, are leading the charge for mandatory two-person crews on all U.S. freights. And they’re very skeptical of PSR’s supposed benefits.
The Teamsters Rail Division, which includes the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, are also campaigning for two-person freight rail crews.
Their assertion is simple: Statistics show a second crew member can prevent accidents, by keeping an eye out for and halting dangerous conditions, whether on tracks or when the freight is parked, that could lead to crashes, explosions, deaths and injuries.
Exhibit A is the July 6, 2013 disaster when an oil train parked on a slope outside Lac-Megantic, Quebec, had its brakes fail, rolled at gathering speed downhill, jumped the tracks in the small city’s downtown and exploded, destroying the city center and killing 47 people.
A second crew member checking the train while the engineer, its sole worker, was on break would have flagged the failing brakes, and shoddy company oversight, too—and taken preventive action.
Exhibit B is Biden’s own pledge, in a June 2020 video address to Smart-TD. “Amtrak Joe” pledged to “keep fighting for” rail workers, “requiring two-person crews on freight trains” and increasing funding for freight rail modernization and for Amtrak, as part of his infrastructure plan. The union endorsed his White House run.
“President Biden has promised the unions he will make the rule a reality, though it has yet to begin the process,” the union said, in a website posting retransmitted by Railroad Workers United, a coalition of rank-and-file rail union members from around the U.S.
“Smart’s endorsement of Biden was based mainly on his ‘strong support of the concerns most important to our members, including the need for two-person railroad crews,’” it posted.
The unions also asked leaders of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to again restore the two-person crew issue to the legislative tracks, especially as the panel works on its section of Biden’s American Jobs Plan, his name for the comprehensive infrastructure bill he’s negotiating with lawmakers.
Panel chair Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., and Surface Transportation Subcommittee Chair Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., agreed to ask the non-partisan Government Accountability Office to analyze the case for and against PSR, the railroads’ alternative.
One factor they want GAO to study: “Safety aspects associated with reductions in workforce, occupational injury rates” and impacts on service and rail safety inspections. Another is “impact of downsizing yards and repair shops.” A third would be impact on both freight and Amtrak service, since the passenger rail firm uses freight tracks everywhere except the heavily traveled Northeast corridor.
“Stakeholders are concerned the rise of PSR has come at the expense of long-term capital investments, reduced infrastructure, affected service for some shippers and caused some dramatic workforce cuts and safety concerns,” the two lawmakers wrote.

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