Commentary: Crew size is not a factor in safety of oil trains

Legislation to mandate two or more crew members for trains ignores the industry’s safety record.

By Michael J. Rush / For The Herald

Recent commentary in The Herald advocates for the passage of proposed legislation (HB 1841 and SB 5877) in the Washington state Legislature requiring that train crews have at least two people in the cab of a locomotive. The commentary asserts that two people are necessary for safety. A dispassionate look at the facts lead to the opposite conclusion.

The commentary, authored by the lead sponsors of the proposed law, bemoans the repeal of a state law on crew size in 1966. Since 1966, crew sizes have been reduced from four or five to today’s two, for freight trains, although three-person crews are used when appropriate.

Significantly, with two-year person crews the general rule today, recent years have been the safest in the history of the industry. Since 2009 the accident rate is down 10 percent while the employee injury rate is down 16 percent. The accident rate for hazardous materials — the primary focus of the article in question — decreased by 48 percent from 2008 to 2017. In fact, more than 99.999 percent of all hazardous materials moved by rail reaches its destination without a release caused by an incident.

It is safer today to work for a railroad than the neighborhood grocery story. All the while, railroads take freight off strained highways and are 75 percent more fuel efficient than trucks.

While proponents of HB 1841 and SB 5877 argue that a set number of people are needed in the cab of a locomotive to ensure safety, the data and consensus among experts differs. The Federal Railroad Administration concluded last year that there is no safety justification for a crew size mandate. The National Safety Transportation Board concurred that the data does not support a crew size standard.

Put simply, the onboard responsibilities of the second crew member, the conductor, can be performed better by technology. Positive train control, or PTC, will prevent certain train accidents caused by human error, including train-to-train collisions and derailments caused by speeding or passing through a red signal.

While proponents of crew size mandates often refer to emergency response in the event of a hazardous materials accident, train crew members are not trained emergency responders. In the event of a hazardous materials accident, they are trained to get away.

Railroads are fully committed to a future with zero incidents and zero injuries. They are also committed to settling staffing issues at the collective bargaining table, where they have always been handled. A recent court ruling supported this premise and instructed rail labor and management to work it out.

Legislation that seeks to lock the industry into place — at a time when lawmakers in the same state are encouraging automation in other transportation modes — will do little to achieve mutually shared goals of the industry, residents or lawmakers. Rather than push narrow public policy untethered to the goal of safety, we should work together to encourage further rail innovation and future safety gains.

Michael J. Rush is senior vice president for safety and operations at the Association of American Railroads.

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