In 2013, an oil train operated only by a single engineer derailed in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, taking the lives of 47 people. In response to that horrific and preventable tragedy, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) studied whether to prohibit railroads from operating trains with only one crew member, and in 2016 issued a proposed rule that would have required at least two crew members on all freight trains. In May 2019, however, the FRA announced that it was withdrawing the proposed rule.
Overwhelming Support for Requiring Two-Person Crews
The FRA’s abrupt decision to walk away from its earlier proposal came as a shock to many, given that 1,545 of the nearly 1,600 comments the FRA received about the rule supported some kind of minimum rail crew requirement. Just 39 comments expressed opposition to the proposal. According to the FRA, the overwhelming majority of these commenters in favor of a rule requiring a two-person crew at minimum identified themselves as current, former, or retired train crewmembers – the people who would know the most about railroad safety.
Similarly, the rule was strongly supported by railroad worker unions and many local, state, and federal government officials. As reflected in the comments and submissions, the main arguments the FRA received in favor of requiring two or more crew members reflected strong concern that operating mile-long freight trains with only one person aboard is unsafe and puts railroad workers and the public at risk. Specifically:
- A train crew’s duties are too demanding for one person.
- New technology will make the job more complex.
- Unpredictable scheduling makes fatigue a more significant factor when there is only a one-person crew.
Industry Opposition Proves Decisive
Faced with this well-founded concern, the FRA dismissed arguments for requiring a two-person crew as “anecdotal.” More tellingly, the proposed rule was abandoned only after massive lobbying by the railroad industry, through the Association of American Railroads (AAR), which paid for a study claiming that evidence regarding the relative safety of two-person crews was inconclusive – never mind the 1500+ comments in support of the regulation by the people who know safety best and whose lives are most affected by the regulations.
The National President of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, Dennis R. Pierce, said it best by expressing his shock at: “the degree to which FRA has chosen to subordinate the safety of [union] members, other railroad workers and the American public to the interests of the nation’s major railroads. Railroad safety has taken a giant step backward, but [we] do not intend to let this development go unchallenged.”
No matter the ill-conceived decisions of federal regulators, the FELA lawyers at Sommers Schwartz support any efforts to increase or ensure the safety of American railroaders and communities, and will continue fighting for railroad safety.