Federal officials proposed a new rule Monday designed to improve railroad safety, requiring all trains have at least a two-man crew, but critics argue it’s just a big union giveaway.
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is the main agency tasked with enforcing railway safety regulations. It also conducts research and makes recommendations to help improve railway safety. The Competitive Enterprise Institute warns the new proposed rule will do nothing to help improve safety and instead would benefit unions that have lost members to automation.
“It forces a redundancy that won’t improve safety and will add some nontrivial costs,” CEI Transportation Expert Marc Scribner told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “It potentially limits the innovation in the railroad industry which is moving towards automation like the auto industry is.”
The railway industry has already begun shifting towards automation, and soon there may be trains that don’t even require crew members. The technological shift is a huge problem for railway unions that may lose members to computers. Scribner notes the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the Sheet Metal Air Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) are the main unions opposing the industry shift.
“Its also contradictory to current federal policy that since 2008, Congress enacted a law requiring railroads to install what is called positive train control technology,” Scribner said. “The railroads have spent billions and billions of dollars of their own money in an attempt to comply.”
The new technological advancements are viewed by some lawmakers as a way to limit human error and thus improve safety. Positive train control technologies aim to automate some features on trains to help improve safety — it could even automatically activate breaks if the train hits a turn too quickly.
“The only people that are pushing this are unions or people acting on behalf of the unions,” Scribner continued. “In the future one advantage is that you don’t need people in there. They would have no problem operating the train without two engineers but obviously the union doesn’t like the idea of cutting the workforce.”
The unions also supported the Safe Freight Act which had a similar aim to the proposed rule, but it stalled in Congress. The average national salary for locomotive engineers is $57,000 annually, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics. There are also an estimated 38,470 engineers employed as of 2014.
“This is a pure union giveaway which goes in the opposite direction the industry wants to go in the future with new technology and potentially getting to the point where you have unmanned drone trains that wouldn’t require any engineer in the cab,” Scribner added. “That’s ultimately where everyone wants to go but of course the unions don’t like that.”
The FRA directed TheDCNF to page 16 of the proposed rule, which states several recent accidents occurred from trains operating with just a one man crew. It also notes emergency situations may be better handled by a multi-worker crew. BLET notes they are still reviewing the proposed rule but are hopeful it could help address the problem of crewmen being overworked.
SMART did not respond to a request for comment by TheDCNF.
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