Two-person rail crews should be a relic of the past | READER COMMENTARY
For The Baltimore Sun|
Jan 27, 2020 | 3:04 PM
Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed legislation in 2019 that would mandate two-person crews on freight trains operating in Maryland. The Sun has urged the legislature to override the veto and the state legislative director for a rail labor union in Maryland posted a comment in support of the legislation (“Maryland freight trains need a crew of at least two to run safely,” Jan. 23). Both are wrong. The governor’s veto of this unnecessary legislation should be upheld.
Leading experts on rail safety fundamentally disagree with a two-person crew mandate. The Federal Railroad Administration concluded last year that there is no safety justification for a crew size mandate. The National Safety Transportation Board concurred that the data does not support a crew size standard.
Most passenger trains, including MARC trains, already operate with just an engineer in the cab.
The Sun argues there must be a “human back-up plan” in the event of a hazardous materials accident. Yet that argument — that all freight trains must also have a conductor — falls apart when one scrutinizes the role of the conductor and the advent of positive train control, or PTC, a technology that will prevent certain train accidents caused by human error. This includes train-to-train collisions and derailments caused by speeding.
Importantly, PTC provides automated backup for an engineer, bringing the train to a stop if the engineer passes through a red signal. It is the superiority of the automated backup provided by PTC over human backup that will lead to a safer railroad system.
Insofar as the non-operational responsibilities of a conductor, such as manually switching tracks, there are alternative ways of accomplishing those tasks.
The assertion that a conductor is needed in the event of a hazardous materials accident is at odds with a conductor’s actual responsibilities. Train crew members are not trained emergency responders. In the event of a hazardous materials accident, they are trained to get away.
Rail labor unions point to examples of railroad employees that have saved lives, and that is true. It is beside the point though regarding the legislation at hand. The question is whether a conductor performs a useful role in operating a train where PTC is deployed. The answer is clearly no.
It is ironic that the Maryland General Assembly passed a bill mandating two-person railroad crews as the country looks towards a future of fully automated motor vehicles including, potentially, trucks. Conceptually, it is certainly easier to envision a fully automated train operating on a largely unencumbered railroad right-of-way than motor vehicles navigating shared highways.
We wish The Sun reached out to the railroad industry to discuss this issue. A dispassionate analysis can lead to only one conclusion: The governor’s veto should be sustained.