Federal transportation regulators said Thursday that U.S. railroads will not have to meet minimum requirements for the size of train crew staffs, known as "crew redundancy," in a ruling that aligned with rail industry interests and disappointed unions and environmental groups.
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), a sub-agency of the Department of Transportation, said it lacked the statistical data to justify a new standard and that six recent rules and safety advisories provided sufficient protection for the communities and environment surrounding rail lines in the event of future accidents.
Accordingly, the administration withdrew a 2016 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that would have required railroad operators to staff two employees in the cab of every locomotive in a move intended to improve rail safety. "In withdrawing the NPRM, FRA is providing notice of its affirmative decision that no regulation of train crew staffing is necessary or appropriate for railroad operations to be conducted safely at this time," FRA Administrator Ronald L. Batory said in a filing.
FRA had originally proposed the NPRM following two rail accidents in 2013 in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, and in Casselton, N.D. The Quebec incident killed 47 people and destroyed 40 buildings when a 74-car freight train carrying crude oil derailed in the city's downtown, causing the explosion of multiple tank cars. The North Dakota crash occurred when an eastbound train hauling crude oil struck wreckage from a previous derailment, leading to a chain of explosions that forced the town to be evacuated.
Following those accidents, the FRA said it researched the costs and benefits of crew redundancy—a term for multiple-person train crews—by creating working groups and by holding public hearings.
The ensuing debate pitted industry groups and labor organizations against each other, with the Association of American Railroads (AAR) and The American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA) opposing the rule, while the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers Transportation Division (SMART TD) supported it, according to the FRA filing. Additional support came from community organizations like The Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) and environmental groups like The Environmental Law & Policy Center.
Of the nearly 1,600 written comments submitted on the issue, about 1,545 were in support of train crew staffing requirements, while just 39 comments opposed train crew size regulation, the FRA said. Despite that lopsided count, the agency said supporters had provided largely "anecdotal" evidence to support their position. "While FRA continues to monitor the potential safety impact of train crew staffing, for the reasons provided below, FRA finds that no regulation of train crew staffing is necessary or appropriate at this time. FRA believes that current safety programs and actions taken following the Lac-Mégantic and Casselton accidents are the appropriate avenues for addressing those accidents," Batory said.
The Association of American Railroads (AAR) praised the holding, saying that recent years have been the safest in rail history and that railroads are committed to deploying new and emerging technologies, such as Positive Train Control (PTC).
"AAR and its member railroads are gratified that the FRA rescinded this unjustified proposal and confirmed what it acknowledged from the start: there is no evidence to justify regulating minimum train crew size as a matter of safety," AAR President and CEO Ian Jefferies said in a release. "Train crew size has been a matter of collective bargaining between railroads and their employees for decades. Over that time, the safety of train operations has steadily improved even as crew sizes have been reduced, through the bargaining process, from five or more down to today's standard of two - and in some cases, one," Jefferies said.
Libertarian think tank the Competitive Enterprise Institute also supported the move, saying the proposed minimums would have amounted to make-work, "featherbedding" jobs that did nothing to support safe operations.
In contrast, the SMART TD union criticized the ruling, saying the FRA will "turn a blind eye to the unsafe practices of single-person or no-person trains."
The union may now fight the ruling in court, according to a statement from John Risch, national legislative director, SMART Transportation Division. "President Donald Trump, DOT Secretary Elaine Chao and FRA Administrator Ron Batory have taken sides, and it's with the railroads that want to eliminate operating crew members to the detriment of rail safety and to the detriment of the communities through which our members operate trains," Risch said. "We are considering legal action and other avenues to protect our members and the American public from the prospects of driverless trains."