You are here

Rail-union Agreement Raises Concerns Over Safety

By Sarah Case - Gilette News Record, August 26, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

If things go the way BNSF and some union leaders hope, the trains that haul coal out of the Powder River Basin soon could be driven by a lone engineer, instead of an engineer working with a conductor.

A pending contract would mandate single-person crews on trains equipped with a technology called Positive Train Control. Conductors, in a new role called a master conductor, would work off site and would oversee an unknown number of trains at any given time.

It’s a cost-saving maneuver that embraces technology mandated by a 2008 law. Many rail employees say it’s too risky to slash crews that help each other out and keep each other awake during long hauls across isolated stretches of territory.

Those opposed to the deal point to the remains of a small Canadian town as evidence that single-person crews are a deadly mistake.


Just after 1 a.m. July 6, 2013, a stopped train with more than 70 cars of Bakken crude oil rolled downhill, derailed and exploded, demolishing the center of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, and killing 47 people.

Investigators determined the Montreal Maine Atlantic engineer, working alone, had not set enough brakes.

The potential for similar incidents in the United States frightens Seattle-based conductor/switchman Jen Wallis.

“We talk about it every day,” Wallis said. “There’s just hundreds of things that could go wrong.”

After training, she said conductors work alongside an experienced engineer long before they’re eligible to apply for engineer training.

With few people to replace retiring engineers, Wallis fears BNSF will force inexperienced conductors into an engineer program without that extra training.

Complicating the issue is that rail workers can be shifted from conductor to engineer and back at a carrier’s discretion, Nevada-based Amtrak engineer Ron Kaminkow said Tuesday. Conductors and engineers work under separate contracts.

Kaminkow, the general secretary of the Rail Workers Union, and Wallis have spearheaded a “vote no” campaign in response to the contract.

Freight restrictions, job losses, and a House bill

BNSF regional spokesman Matt Jones said in early August the agreement does not apply to oil trains. The railroad considers oil a flammable hazardous material, and Jones said trains hauling it are required to have a two-person crew.

“There’s nothing in the contract that excludes any type of train (from a one-person crew mandate),” Wallis countered.

Jones would not say how many trains a master conductor might oversee at one time, and Kaminkow speculated the master conductor position will mean massive job losses. His talking points speculate the master conductor-to-trains ratio could reach 1 to 25.

“It’s strictly up to the carrier to decide,” he said. “We have no way of knowing how many positions will exist after this settles.”

Ballots are due in early September, and Kaminkow believes the contract will fail. Union committee leaders have warned that annual wage increases and a one-time $5,000 signing bonus won’t come without it.

Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, hopes to prevent single-person crews with the Safe Freight Act, H.R. 3040, mandating two-person crews on all freight trains. gives the bill less than a 3 percent chance of passing.

“We have public opinion on our side,” Kaminkow said, adding that a “snapback” provision in the contract means that if the contract is approved and the bill becomes law, workers will forfeit the $5,000 bonus.

Union committee members have been visiting workers in affected states since mid-July. They met Aug. 6 with members in Gillette. Non-union members and the media were not permitted to attend.

Kaminkow said he’s heard some meetings have become heated, and workers’ families frequently protest outside.

“More workers are getting angry and disgusted that this was agreed to and is being presented to them,” he said.

The News Record asked local BNSF employees to comment on the situation. Those who said the contract concerns them would not speak on the record, citing fear for their jobs.

Contentious change

PTC is a safety measure mandated in the 2008 Rail Safety Improvement Act. Union committee leaders and BNSF statements say the contract also ensures shorter, more predictable schedules.

Jones referred questions about potential job losses to SMART-TD GO-001 International Representative John W. Babler, who did not return calls seeking comment.

In a letter accompanying the contract, Babler warned members not to leave their future to chance or rely on regulation.

“Vote in favor of the agreement,” he ended the letter.

Conversely, national SMART-TD President John Previsich fell short of opposing the contract, opting instead to urge support for H.R. 3040 in a July 18 statement.

He cited fatigue, task saturation, security and more as issues that “remain at the forefront of any discussion regarding crew size, and to date, all such concerns remain unresolved.”

“It is imprudent for anyone to assert that technology can replace the safety and security of a two-person train crew,” Previsich wrote.

Wallis is skeptical of the shorter shifts and guaranteed start times promised in the contract.

“With this agreement, they can say your on-duty place is two hours away,” she said. Workers wouldn’t be compensated for time or mileage to reach that location, she said.

“There’s not an engineer out there and very few trainmen who want to see single-employee train crews,” Kaminkow said.

Positive Train Control

Wallis and Kaminkow said they and the rail workers they’ve spoken with think the concept of PTC — a network of sensors and transmitters that can slow or stop trains to prevent collisions and derailments — is good.

“As people whose lives are on the line every day, we appreciate that technology,” Kaminkow said.

“We just had a train wreck in Arkansas, where two trains collided (on Aug. 17),” he said. “Depending on the circumstances, it’s possible PTC could have prevented it.”

BNSF is installing PTC equipment on 9,400 miles of track in 21 states. Not every train will have PTC, and those without it still will have two-person crews.

In a 2013 solution overview, CISCO describes PTC as an augmentation to “safety precautions already undertaken by the locomotive engineer in order to help prevent human-caused train incidents.” It cannot detect if a pedestrian or vehicle is on a track.

A September 2008 crash between a Union Pacific freight train and a Metrolink commuter train in California killed 25 people, injured 135 and caused $7 million in damage.

An NTSB investigation cited the Metrolink train’s “lack of a positive train control system” and the engineer’s “prohibited use of a wireless device, specifically text messaging, that distracted him from his duties.”

The Rail Safety Improvement Act was passed and signed into law later in 2008.

Wallis, who estimated roughly 13 percent of BNSF trains initially will have PTC, said she’s spoken to engineers who have driven PTC test trains and reported they ran through red lights and went into emergency mode while stopped.

She said the concept of PTC is great, but it should not replace people on trains or in switch yards.

“They have a long way to go before they can implement it,” she said.

Media in Omaha and at The Atlantic speculated as recently as late July that railroads may request an extension past the Dec. 31, 2015, deadline for implementing PTC due to siting and development delays.

Jones would not confirm that, writing that “the development and testing of underlying positive train control technologies have been underway at BNSF for more than a decade.”

The train that derailed and exploded at Lac-Megantic was not equipped with PTC. The disaster prompted the Federal Railway Administration in the U.S. to pursue banning one-person crews on trains hauling crude oil.

Wallis said the railroad was quick to pin the accident solely on the lone engineer, who now faces criminal charges.

“He was supposed to tie nine brakes and he only did seven,” she said. “The company was happy to point that out. Anything to blame the worker.”

She said brake-tying is a two-person job.

“There wasn’t a second person to do that (in Lac-Megantic),” she said. “Just him.”

The Fine Print I:

Disclaimer: The views expressed on this site are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) unless otherwise indicated and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s, nor should it be assumed that any of these authors automatically support the IWW or endorse any of its positions.

Further: the inclusion of a link on our site (other than the link to the main IWW site) does not imply endorsement by or an alliance with the IWW. These sites have been chosen by our members due to their perceived relevance to the IWW EUC and are included here for informational purposes only. If you have any suggestions or comments on any of the links included (or not included) above, please contact us.

The Fine Print II:

Fair Use Notice: The material on this site is provided for educational and informational purposes. It may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. It is being made available in an effort to advance the understanding of scientific, environmental, economic, social justice and human rights issues etc.

It is believed that this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have an interest in using the included information for research and educational purposes. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. The information on this site does not constitute legal or technical advice.