Federal rail regulators have proposed a rule requiring a minimum of two train crewmembers for over-the-road railroad operations, pushing a political pendulum that had swung toward smaller staffing requirements during the Trump Administration.
Citing a need for improved safety practices, the suggested “crew redundancy” policy by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) also proposes requirements for the location of crewmembers on a moving train, and would prohibit the operation of some trains with fewer than two crewmembers from transporting large amounts of certain hazardous materials.
But for safer runs, the rule would include flexible exceptions for certain low risk operations and circumstances where mitigating measures are in place to protect railroad employees, the public, and the environment.
The move resuscitates a concept first pushed by the FRA in 2016 following two rail accidents in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, and in Casselton, North Dakota, where train loads of crude oil ignited after train wrecks and caused huge explosions that flattened buildings and killed residents. However, the Trump Administration’s FRA withdrew that notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) in 2019, following heated debate between rail industry groups and labor and environmental organizations.
The potential rule will be published in tomorrow’s issue of the Federal Register, starting the clock on a series of legal steps that invites comments on the proposed rule to be received by September 26.
One group that is already pushing back against the idea is the Association of American Railroads (AAR), a trade group for rail industry corporations. In a statement, the group called the revived NPRM “misguided” and said it would put freight rail at a long-term competitive disadvantage to less fuel-efficient modes of transportation. According to the AAR, other Department of Transportation modal agencies are working to support greater automation and technological safety benefits—such as positive train control (PTC)—but the FRA “stands alone in its efforts to lock in yesterday’s regulatory approaches.”
However, the government says the rule is needed to support safer operations, and is consistent with safety analysis required by other FRA regulations, including PTC, a technology suite that went live on U.S. rails in 2020 and can automatically stop a train before certain human-related accidents occur.
According to the FRA, the proposed rule would also replace an existing patchwork of conflicting state laws regarding crew size with a uniform national standard. Without consistent guidelines, railroads may be subjected to disparate requirements in every state in which they operate, resulting in potential safety risks, operational inefficiencies, and significant costs, the agency said.
“We are committed to data-driven decision making,” FRA Administrator Amit Bose said in a release. “In cases where railroads wish to operate with fewer than two crewmembers, we are proposing that they perform a rigorous, thorough, and transparent risk assessment and hazard analysis, and FRA will provide an opportunity for public comment on these submissions.”
Today, FRA announced a proposed rule requiring a minimum of two train crewmembers for most railroad operations, with some exceptions for certain low risk operations. Read the release here: https://t.co/mOaIp8ohHk— The FRA (@USDOTFRA) July 27, 2022
AAR CEO Ian Jefferies: FRA proposed crew size rule "prioritizes politics over sound, data-driven safety policy" effectively locking in 2 person crews into the future. https://t.co/eTrIfT7CH9 pic.twitter.com/uZNnfbRSpz— AAR (@AAR_FreightRail) July 27, 2022