By Linda Kor
Concerns over public safety and railroad jobs are prompting members of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation (SMART) Union to reach out to the public for support for H.R. 3040, also known as the Safe Freight Act. The effort is to ensure that no freight or light engine train is operated unless it has a crew consisting of at least two crew members, one a certified engineer and the other a conductor.
The request comes as the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) and SMART representatives in the northern and northwest regions have reached a tentative agreement to allow a single engineer to operate a train on routes protected by a new collision-avoidance system that Congress voted on in 2008, which must be in place by 2015. The system, called Positive Train Control, or PTC, is designed to nearly eliminate human error by using a combination of GPS technology, wireless radio and computers, replacing traditional safety methods based on mechanical signals.
Railroaders are in support of the PTC system, but as an additional safety system, not to be relied upon as a replacement for people. Most freight trains in the U.S. currently operate with at least two crew members. The implementation of the PTC system with just an engineer would allow railroads to dramatically reduce their labor costs, meaning fewer jobs and more concerns for safety.
While this agreement would only affect the northern states, Ellis Laird, vice chairman of SMART Local 113 in Winslow believes with this precedent, it’s just a matter of time before such measures make their way to Arizona.
“We don’t want any part of it. That would cut 50 percent of our jobs; it would have an impact,” stated Laird, who added that there are currently 530 railway employees in the Winslow and Holbrook area.
Another concern addressed by Laird is safety. “Do you really want a train barreling through town with the cargo that could be in those freight cars and know there is only one person on that train? If something should happen to that one person for whatever reason, then you have a problem,” he explained.
One example of what could happen is an incident that occurred in July 2013 in the province of Quebec, Canada. A one-man train operated by the Montreal Main & Atlantic Railway carrying a full load of oil was left unattended so that the engineer could sleep at a nearby inn. The train slipped its brake, rolled into the town and derailed, causing a fiery explosion that killed 47 people, spilled millions of gallons of oil and destroyed several city blocks.
Anytime a train derails at high speed, there is a likelihood of broad devastation. According to the Transportation Trades Department, in the U.S. a freight train can weigh up to 15,000 tons and average over a mile long, and last year the industry transported 2.47 million carloads of hazardous materials.
The trains that travel through the communities of Holbrook, Joseph City and Winslow several times every hour can be carrying oil, chlorine, ethanol and other hazardous materials. “If you have an engineer that has an unknown health condition and suddenly drops from a heart attack, what then? The PTC operators are all in Texas and we have a whole lot of open land with small towns in between. What are they going to do from there?” asked Laird.
Although the vote for PTC will only be for the northern regions, Laird is concerned about the precedent such a decision could set. “If this happens in one region, it’ll be happening here eventually. This bill on a federal level ensures that lives will not be put at risk and jobs won’t be lost,” he noted.
At its peak in the 1900s, railroad employment totaled approximately two million people; now it’s roughly 10 percent of that total. While the railroads are moving more cargo than ever before, new technologies are replacing workers, with rail freight crews going down from five to just two. The conductor and the engineer have a multitude of tasks to perform and for the conductor, one of those tasks is ensuring that the engineer is alert, awake and in control.
H.R. 3040 is currently under consideration by the U.S. House, and has been referred to the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials. Union representatives are asking the public to contact their congressmen and voice their support for the passage of this bill. According to Laird, it could mean saving lives and saving jobs. “You don’t want to trust your lives to just one person and a bunch of computers; this is about the safety of our communities,” he concluded.