The Federal Railroad Administration, charged with overseeing safe operation of the nation’s railroads, declared Tuesday that over-the-rails freight trains must have at least two people aboard.

The common-sense requirement became necessary as the nation’s largest railroads worked toward reducing the operating crew size to a single person, and envisioning a future with no humans aboard trains controlled remotely with artificial intelligence.

The FRA ruling puts a halt to those plans.

The ruling followed more than a year of consideration, including extensive public comments. In the meantime, two-person crew requirements were adopted by some individual states.

“It’s an historic decision. Our union has worked tirelessly on this for years,” said Andy Foust, the Nebraska representative of SMART-TD, the union that represents train conductors.

The ruling says railroads must “staff every train operation with a minimum of two crewmembers (including a locomotive engineer and an additional crewmember who will typically be a conductor).”

The increasing length of trains is causing heightened safety concerns, the FRA said.

“The average length of a Class I freight train has grown substantially in recent years, to nearly three miles in some cases,” the FRA said, “as train length and tonnage add to the complexity and safety challenges of these operations.”

The FRA said a second crewmember typically assists with mitigation, such as when responding to accidents, derailments, releases of hazardous materials, and requests from an emergency responder to unblock a highway-rail grade crossing in response to a potentially life-threatening situation.

Also, a second crewmember can secure a train with hand brakes, which a one-person train crew could not do without violating other requirements.

The two crewmembers must also be able to “directly communicate with each other even if one crewmember is not in the locomotive cab.”

The decision is spelled out in 223 pages. Foust said late Tuesday afternoon that it will take a while to fully digest it, but it is similar in principle to a bill that the Nebraska legislature considered earlier this year, sponsored by Sen. Mike Jacobson.

Jacobson ran into a filibuster from state senators supported by Class I railroad management, and the bill fell short, 24-19. Thirty-three votes were needed.

Uniformity

The FRA rule will ensure that laws, regulations, and orders “related to railroad safety” with respect to train crew size are nationally uniform, preventing varying state laws regulating crew size from creating a patchwork of rules governing train operations across the country.

Troubling safety trends

The FRA said the latest annual rail safety data reflects troubling trends that point toward a need for heightened caution and awareness in railroad operations.

The rate for all human-factor-caused accidents increased from 0.95 accidents per million train miles to 1.34 between 2013-22, a 41.1% increase, and from 1.18 accidents per million train miles to 1.34 between 2021-22, a 13.6% increase.

The percentage of train accidents attributed solely to human factors increased from 38.5% to 45.6% between 2013-22.

The number of main track train handling and make-up accidents attributed to human factor cause has increased from 28 in 2013 to 36-77 between 2018-22.

When normalizing this data by the number of train miles, it shows an increase from 0.04 in 2013 to 0.07 in 2022, reaching as high as 0.10 and 0.13 during this period, a range that increased 25-225% over the five-year period between 2018-22.

Smaller exceptions

Exceptions to the two-crewmember requirement will be allowed, with oversight, on Class II and Class III railroads — mid-size and short line railroads, running in local areas, sometimes between grain elevators and manufacturing centers.  

Nevertheless, FRA also mandated Class II and III railroads use at least two crewmembers when “transporting certain quantities and types of hazardous materials that have been determined to pose the highest risk in transportation from both a safety and security perspective.”

And, smaller trains must be able to communicate.

Small railroads much always have a working radio for the operator to contact others, the ruling says.

Short lines do not always use dispatchers, and short line trains may not have a working radio or other working wireless communications in the cab of a controlling locomotive.

The ruling Tuesday should change that.

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