A long legislative hearing was held Monday afternoon about a state requirement for a two-person freight train crew in Nebraska.

Sen. Mike Jacobson introduced the bill, LB 31. It provides that any train or light engine used in connection with the movement of freight must continue to be operated with a crew consisting of at least two individuals.

The hearing, which was held before the legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, lasted all afternoon. There were 21 proponents and five opponents. The major railroads oppose the requirement.

In his opening remarks, Jacobson noted that two-person crews are required today under collective bargaining agreements. He said two people provide someone to immediately respond to any problems that may arise, including collisions, derailments and blocked crossings.

He referred to “the recent rash of train derailments” that “highlight the need for this bill.”

Eight other states currently require two-person crews, and several other states are considering it. Jacobson said Nebraska needs to be No. 9.

Although the Federal Rail Administration (FRA) is discussing steps to retain the requirement nationally, he said that they have yet to act and have been inconsistent in the past.

Jacobson also noted that train lengths have grown from a mile to more than three-and-a-half miles in the past few years. Single employee operation is inherently unsafe and dangerous for both the public and employees.

Lincoln County Commissioner Chris Bruns told the committee that Lincoln County has, arguably more than any other county in the state, a strong heritage related to our country’s railroads.  

Bruns credited the railroads for advancements in technology in the competitive global economy, but stressed that a two-person crew is a public safety necessity.

He also said the requirement should not be left up to collective bargaining.

“With all due respect to those that wage this argument…. employment, wages, and benefits are collective bargaining issues. Public safety is not and should never be left to the hands of a private company between its corporate officers and its employees,” Bruns said.

Bruns noted that the railroads’ chief responsibility is to their stakeholders, and particularly their shareholders. 

“I don’t fault them for this. I am a firm believer in capitalism,” he said. “Instead, public safety is the chief priority and responsibility of government.”

Pat Pfeifer, a North Platte locomotive engineer and the State Legislative Chairman for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, urged the committee to be aware of the shortcomings of artificial intelligence and the automated systems that the railroads are creating.

Pat Pfeifer

As an example, he reminded the committee that the vehicle manufacturer, Tesla, recalled more than 360,000 self-driving vehicles on Feb. 16 because their beta software may cause crashes.

Pfeifer maintains that “precision scheduled railroading” has meant job cuts and increased reliance on automation, and it is creating unsafe trains. He cited the derailment of cars carrying toxic chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio and a derailed coal train in Gothenburg – the second such derailment near Gothenburg in less than a year.

Pfeifer said that coal train evidently was not properly inspection at Bailey Yard because of job cuts, and the RR technology on the tracks (a wayside detector of faulty wheels) either failed or was disregarded.

He said during the past six years, the Class 1 railroads have axed 33% of their workers through layoffs and attrition, according to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board.

Pfeifer told the Bulletin later that he believes that UP’s long-term goal is to run fully autonomous trains, without a person on board.

Jacobson noted that engineers must stay in the cab under all circumstances and often must be there for up to 12 hours with no breaks and no cell phones. He said the long hours lead to increased stress and mental fatigue, especially for someone who is alone.

He said onboard conductors are essential for safety, because:

• Conductors often act as a first responder and leave the train to help those injured in an accident.
• Provide assistance and information when first responders arrive.
• Help if the engineer had a health emergency such as a heart attack.
• Cut crossings for emergency responders if they can’t get to the other side for emergencies.
• Provide an extra set of eyes to notice something on the track, a train derailment, or can detect something wrong before it leads to an accident.
• Ensures all safety regulations are followed on board and maintain the train manifest to help first responders to know the cargo in each car in the event of a derailment.
• Decouple cars and change train direction.
• Make repairs while the train is stopped.

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