Do not reduce train crews to one

With profit seemingly driving all business decisions, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the country’s major railroad companies are continuing their quest to reduce freight trains crews … to one person. Not surprising, but scary.

The railroad bosses are united in their desire for this change, citing technological advances. Labor groups, those living on rail lines and people interested in common sense are opposed. Rail “crews” are already down to two — an engineer who drives the train and a conductor who oversees the long line of cars, communicates with dispatchers and provides a second set of monitoring eyes.

Through the decades, trains have only gotten longer, while carrying more hazardous materials, including coal and oil — a concern highlighted here in the past of couple of years as shipments into the Pacific Northwest, according to the Department of Ecology, went from zero barrels a year in 2011 to nearly 17 million barrels in 2013. The oil influx coincides with a proposal to build a coal export terminal at Cherry Point in Whatcom County, increasing daily rail traffic by nine trains.

Rail executives say that safety advances, including a new automatic braking system under development, could minimize risks, allowing the trains to be run by a one person crew, AP reported. Could minimize risks? That also means they might not. The blind belief in automation is not a compelling argument. Technology can supplement safety measures, but any advantage gained is lost when management views a new tool as a way to replace people.

The call for one-person crews comes even as new safety regulations for oil trains are being considered at the federal and state levels. It also comes as rail companies seek to increase train length in order to deliver more, and to expand capacity to handle more freight.

“These trains are 7,000 tons going 50 mph. You have to have two people,” J.P. Wright, an engineer for CSX railroad in Louisville, Kentucky, told AP. “It’s mindboggling to me that the railroads would go this far with it.”

The rail companies argue that a second person doesn’t necessarily improve safety.

“In many cases, that second crew member will be redundant,” said Frank Wilner, who has written six books on the rail industry.

When it comes to safety systems, redundancy is exactly what you want. Disaster prevention requires prudence. And taking more precautions, not less. When engineers and conductors say two people are needed to operate a train, everyone should listen. If disaster prevention isn’t enough motivation for rail management to drop this dangerous plan, perhaps they will understand that sticking with common-sense staffing will likely save them money in the long run.

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