HR 3040 (Safe Freight Act) and S2784 (Rail Safety Improvement Act) have been introduced in Congress. The legislation would require freight trains to be crewed by both a conductor and an engineer. The unions are obviously very much in favor of the bills, predicting a “safety disaster” should freight trains have just a single crew member:
Part of the excuse for single-person crews is the coming of yet another new technology, positive train control, which Congress is mandating the rail carriers all adopt by 2015. This automated system will track trains’ speed and position, and apply the brakes in certain situations. Railroaders call this tech advance a good thing—but as an additional boost to safety, not something you’d want to rely on to replace a human. “The railroad unions have been asking for PTC to be implemented as a safety overlay, not in place of a crew member,” Wright says.
Even as companies have been lobbying to delay PTC because of its cost, they’ve also been eyeing it as an opportunity to cut labor costs. They will save billions of dollars if they can implement one-person crews, says Kaminkow.
Contrary to the aims of the legislation, a two-man crew mandate could actually reduce the overall safety of the transportation system. That is because increasing costs for freight train operators makes them less competitive against trucking. The end result will be more cargo shipped by truck — a mode of transport orders of magnitude more deadly than trains.