Risks of One-Man Rail Crews Debated in Wake of Disaster
The train hauling millions of gallons of crude oil that slammed into a Canadian town got there with a crew of one -- staffing permitted by law though opposed by labor leaders who’ve warned of the risks.
The union representing workers at Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway Ltd. fought the company policy that allowed a solo operator to drive and park the train for the night and says the disaster points to the dangers of manpower cuts.
“It’s unfortunate that it takes such a terrible, terrible, terrible situation like this to realize how vulnerable we are in this country,” Guy Farrell, assistant to the Quebec director of the United Steelworkers Union, said in an interview.
In the U.S., crews of at least two people are the norm -- down from five 50 years ago. Some non-union short-line railroads are using one-person crews and others are pushing to do so, Dennis Pierce, Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen national president, said.
Lawmaker Olivia Chow of the New Democratic Party, Canada’s main opposition party, said in a statement today the government should ban one-person crews on trains carrying hazardous goods in response to the Quebec explosion.
The safety of moving oil by train is drawing attention as production soars in areas not fully served by pipelines, such as North Dakota’s Bakken Shale where the doomed Canadian train took on its freight. Carloads of crude and refined petroleum products carried by rail in the U.S. rose 47 percent this year through July 6 from the same period in 2012, according to the Association of American Railroads. In Canada, car loads of fuel and crude oil surged 74 percent in the first four months of this year, compared with the year-ago period, according to Statistics Canada.
Investigators are combing through the wreckage to determine how the MM&A train, with more than 70 tankers, rolled away from its parking spot July 6 after the engineer left it for the night. The train jumped the tracks as it reached Lac-Megantic, about 250 kilometers (155 miles) east of Montreal, incinerating 30 buildings in the town’s center. Twenty people have been confirmed dead and scores more are missing and presumed dead.
Edward Burkhardt, chief executive officer of closely held Rail World Inc., which owns the railroad, defended the use of a one-person crew even as he suggested that human error contributed to the accident.
“We actually think one-man crews are safer than two man-crews because there’s less distraction,” Burkhardt said yesterday at a news conference in Lac-Megantic televised by CBC.
The engineer who left the train has been suspended because “the police have talked about prosecuting him and they want him staying where he is,” Burkhardt said. A United Steelworkers union official identified the engineer as Tom Harding of Farnham, Quebec.
“We think he applied some handbrakes,” Burkhardt said. “The question is, did he apply enough of them? He’s told us that he applied 11 handbrakes and our general feeling now is that that is not true.”
Burkhardt agreed this week to stop leaving trains unattended overnight.
The Quebec steelworkers union, which represents 75 MM&A employees, raised staffing issues in contract negotiations three times since the company took over the railroad in 2000, Farrell said. He blamed the Canadian federal government for allowing one-man crews.
In the U.S., while no regulation or law bans the use of one-person rail crews, regulations dictating what the engineer and conductor do in the locomotive effectively prohibit the practice. Collective bargaining agreements between more than a dozen rail-worker unions and the railroads who employ them have kept two operators in most trains running in the U.S.
That’s not enough for the two rail-operator unions, which four years ago petitioned the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration asking the regulator to prohibit one-person crews. The agency told the United Transportation Union and Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen in a November 2009 letter it had “no factual evidence to support the prohibition against one-person crew operations.”
“It is, in our opinion and the opinion of many, a very unsafe, untenable practice,” said James Stem, national legislative director for the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation union’s transportation division, which was formerly the UTU.
Railroad workers were among the first laborers to be unionized in North America, winning the right to collectively bargain early in the last century. Deregulation that began in the 1980s in both Canada and the U.S. led to pressure for concessions on staffing that the railroads said were appropriate given advances in technology.
“The unions have a history of arguing for the maintenance of crew sizes and the creation of positions,” Gary Chaison, a labor-law professor at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, said in an interview. “The railroads are becoming more powerful. The railway unions are still in retreat.”
Fifty years ago, trains were operated with five-person crews, which were downsized from the earlier days when rail workers shoveled coal to power engines and had to climb to rail roofs to turn discs to operate brakes, said Frank Wilner, a railroad economist and the author of “Understanding the Railway Labor Act” about the history of rail labor laws.
Two-person crews make sense both because there’s a lot for conductors to do such as monitoring signals telling rail operators when to stop or slow and because a second person is a backstop against inevitable human error, Wilner said in an interview.
“If you have two people monitoring each other, such as ensuring handbrakes are properly set, catastrophe can be avoided,” he said.
Two-person crews have been the norm since the early 1990s, said Pierce, with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.
In the U.S., large railroads, which include Warren Buffett’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Union Pacific Corp. (UNP), “have consistently pushed for crew size reductions for decades and last unsuccessfully pushed for single-man operations in certain settings” in negotiations for a 2007 labor agreement, Pierce said in an e-mail.
Short-line railroads, the smallest type of railroad in the U.S., is the group pushing for one-person crews with some non-unionized short lines running one-person crews now, he said.
One other railroad operating in Canada, Quebec North Shore and Labrador, has sought permission to use one-person crews, though others are considering it, according to Transport Canada, the regulator that oversees railways.
To qualify they must have technology in place to support one-person crews, and must coordinate with municipalities along their routes to ensure they can clear blocked crossings and respond to emergencies, Maryse Durette, a spokeswoman for Transport Canada, said in an e-mail.
The Federal Railroad Administration, the unit of the U.S. Transportation Department that regulates rail safety, doesn’t mandate the number of crew members on a train, Kevin Thompson, a spokesman, said. “In almost every case” crews include an engineer to operate and a conductor to manage the train, he said in an e-mail.
Since 2004, accidents have declined by 43 percent while highway-rail grade crossing accidents have fallen by 34 percent. Last year was the “safest year in railroading history,” Thompson said.
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