BILLINGS, Mont. — The Trump administration has withdrawn a proposal for freight trains to have at least two crew members, nullifying a measure drafted under President Barack Obama in response to explosions of crude oil trains in the U.S. and Canada.
This is a win for railroad management in a long-running battle between labor and management over mandatory two-person crews.
A review of accident data did not support the notion that having one crew member is less safe than multi-person crews, Department of Transportation officials said.
The department also seeks to pre-empt states from regulating crew sizes.
Such legislation has been introduced frequently in the Nebraska Legislature. The most recent proposal was Legislative Bill 611, introduced by State Sen. Tom Brandt of Plymouth. It remains in committee.
The 2016 proposal followed oil train derailments including a runaway oil train in 2013 that derailed, exploded and killed 47 people while levelling much of the town of Lac Megantic, Canada. Other derailments of trains carrying oil and ethanol have occurred in North Dakota, Oregon, Montana, Illinois, Virginia and other states.
Under Obama, regulators concluded that having two or more crew members would be worth the extra cost even if it prevented a single accident.
The rail industry, which long maintained that crew requirements were unnecessary, cheered the administration’s move late last week.
Railroad company representatives said the withdrawn crew rule would have locked them into crew sizes at a time when the industry is expanding the use of new technologies such as positive train control. Those are computer-based systems that can automatically stop trains to prevent accidents caused by high speed or collisions.
“Allowing railroads the flexibility to adjust their operations to reflect the capabilities of technologies like PTC (positive train control) will help advance railroads’ mission to achieve an accident-free future,” said Ian Jefferies, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads
But a representative for a rail workers union said it would put the public at greater risk by removing a safeguard against accidents. Most trains currently operate with at least two crew members but without a government regulation there’s no guarantee that would continue indefinitely.
“If railroads would start running single person operators, there’s nobody up there to interact to make sure everything is done right,” said John Risch, legislative affairs director for SMART Transportation Division, a rail workers union.
“The government has essentially said we’re not going to provide any oversight whatsoever. Whatever the railroads want to do, they can do,” Risch said.
The Federal Railroad Administration said in a statement that the rail industry has “maintained a strong safety record in the absence of regulation on this issue.”
The statement also said a crew staffing rule would have been “an unnecessary obstacle” to future innovation in the industry.
World-Herald staff writer Martha Stoddard contributed to this report.