The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) recently withdrew a proposed rule from 2016 requiring at least two crew members on trains. The agency also barred states from requiring a minimum number of crew members on each train.
Officials originally hoped to improve performance and safety measures with the rule. However, government officials argued that little evidence showed that two-member crews made for safer trains. After the FRA withdrew the rule, the agency stated that regulating the size of train crews is unnecessary for the safety of operations.
Incidents leading to the proposed rule
Two 2013 railroad accidents prompted the FRA to consider mandating train crew sizes. An accident in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec killed 49 people and destroyed much of the town. Another accident in Casselton, North Dakota resulted in no injuries or fatalities, yet caused the explosion of 476,000 gallons of crude oil and the evacuation of the surrounding area. Both trains were unattended.
The FRA investigated both accidents. However, it ultimately concluded that no safety connection linked the accidents with the lack of crew members on board.
Current requirements for train crew members
The Washington Post reports that currently, most trains across the country run with an engineer and a conductor. Some passenger trains may run with more than one conductor, while airport rail shuttles already run without any crew members on board. While completely autonomous trains may still be in the distant future, officials expect positive train control to eliminate human error by the end of 2020.
Conflicting viewpoints on the ruling
In coming to its decision, the FRA collected feedback to observe both stakeholder and public opinion on the proposal. Over a five-month period in 2016, it received 1,545 comments in support of mandating crew sizes. Just 39 comments opposed the regulation of crew sizes. According to a summary issued by the FRA, the key themes in support of the proposal were that:
- The duties of the train crew are too demanding for one crew member
- Advances in technology will only make the job even more complicated
- Fatigue is common among crew members due to unpredictable schedules
- A one-person crew seems to conflict with certification requirements
After the decision, two labor unions warned against autonomous trains and stated that the FRA’s ruling went against public and worker safety. The unions vow to challenge the decision and continue fighting for safety on the railroads.