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In December 2022, a potentially economy-crippling rail strike was narrowly averted by last-minute Congressional intervention. During the wearying months of negotiations that led up to that point, numerous issues were on the table — including the size of train crews.  

In a Congressional Research Service report published at the time, transportation policy analyst Ben Goldman described the issue.  

“Railroads have explored the use of one-person train crews to further maximize asset utilization, while unions and some lawmakers have sought to establish a two-person crew minimum on safety grounds,” he wrote. “The Federal Railroad Administration proposed a new crew size rule in July 2022 after the withdrawal of an earlier proposal was vacated by a federal court. In the run-up to the current bargaining session, some rail unions asserted that preexisting moratorium provisions prevented negotiations over train crew sizes. However, in response to a lawsuit filed by the rail carriers, a federal judge ordered that the unions must engage in good-faith negotiations over train crew size proposals put forth by rail carriers as part of a new labor agreement. Train crew size rules are being negotiated locally on a railroad-by-railroad basis and will not be affected by the current labor dispute.”

At the time, the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association was one of many in the rail industry that balked at the new rule proposal: “The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is moving forward with a proposed rule that could require railroads to hire more personnel or operate with more people on a train than necessary. It would be the first time in the nearly 200-year history of railroading in this country that there has been a federal rule on the number of people needed to operate a train. Crew size has long been handled via labor negotiations, and should remain so.”

To the dismay of those who hold such sentiments — and the joy of rail workers and those who represent them — that proposed rule was recently finalized.   

Final rule announced 

In an April 2 press release, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced that a final rule “establishing minimum safety requirements for the size of train crews” had been issued which “enhances safety in the rail industry by generally requiring and emphasizing the importance and necessity of a second crewmember on all trains.” 

“Common sense tells us that large freight trains, some of which can be over three miles long, should have at least two crewmembers on board – and now there’s a federal regulation in place to ensure trains are safely staffed,” said Buttigieg. “This rule requiring safe train crew sizes is long overdue, and we are proud to deliver this change that will make workers, passengers, and communities safer.”

Key points noted in the announcement include: 

  • A second crewmember is needed to perform “important safety functions” that may not be possible with a one-person crew. 
  • Without the final rule, railroads could “initiate single-crew operations without performing a rigorous risk assessment, mitigating known risks, or even notifying FRA.” However, the final rule “closes this loophole by establishing minimum standards and a federal oversight process to empower communities and railroad workers to make their voices heard by allowing for public input during FRA’s decision-making process on whether to grant special approval for one-person train crew operations.”
  • During the 146-day comment period and testimony during a one-day public hearing, the FRA reviewed and considered over 13,500 written comments. 

“The volume of comments from rail workers and their families, as well as comments from the general public impacted by long trains and other issues, raised legitimate safety concerns that railroads, on their own, have not been able to adequately address,” said FRA Administrator Amit Bose in the statement. “Today’s final rule acknowledges the important role both crewmembers play in the safe operations of trains, and it comes at a time when the latest annual data reflects some troubling trends that demonstrate the need to improve safety. FRA is taking proactive steps to protect the public, workers, and communities where trains operate across the country.”

Additionally, the release notes that the final rule:

  • Codifies train crew staffing rules at a federal level, “ensuring that freight and passenger rail operations are governed by consistent safety rules in all states.”
  • Contains some “differences from the initial notice of proposed rulemaking in how it treats freight railroads, especially Class II and III freight railroads. In limited cases, the rule permits exceptions for smaller railroads to continue or initiate certain one-person train crew operations by notifying FRA and complying with new federal safety standards.” 

The final rule as submitted to the Federal Register can be viewed here

AAR: Final rule is an FRA “overreach”  

However, not everyone agrees that two-person crews should be required — including the American Association of Railroads (AAR).

In an April 2 response statement, AAR said the final rule had been issued “despite the lack of evidence connecting crew size to rail safety,” also noting that the FRA “abandoned a similar rule in 2019 after failing to identify evidence to justify a safety need.” 

“FRA is doubling down on an unfounded and unnecessary regulation that has no proven connection to rail safety,” said AAR President and CEO Ian Jefferies in the statement. “Instead of prioritizing data-backed solutions to build a safer future for rail, FRA is looking to the past and upending the collective bargaining process.”

AAR says rail carriers “prioritize data-driven safety improvements through extensive employee training and private investments in technology and infrastructure.” Citing improved safety metrics over the years, AAR describes railroads as devoting “billions to enhance their infrastructure, deploy safety technologies and invest in their employees to help the industry deliver safely and reliably into the future.” 

“Railroads are committed to working with our union counterparts and policymakers to build on this momentum and advance proven solutions that meaningfully advance safety,” Jefferies added. “Unfortunately, the crew size rule takes the industry in the exact opposite direction.”

Saying that in the past, railroad staffing and crew size policies have been managed through the collective bargaining process between rail carriers and unions, AAR says the new rule represents an “overreach” by the FRA that will “diminish the importance of collective bargaining by inserting the regulator between parties.”

TTD applauds new rule

On the flip side, Greg Regan, President of the Transportation Trades Department (TTD) of the AFL-CIO, says the final rule is something that’s long been needed. 

“For years, rail workers and unions have sounded the alarm about the need for two-person crews,” Regan said in a statement. “Thanks to the actions of the Biden Administration, our calls for action have been answered. We applaud the final rule to require a minimum of two crew members on trains and establish minimum requirements for the location of crew members on moving trains to promote safe and effective teamwork.”

“This rule acknowledges that crew size is fundamentally a safety issue at its core,” he added. “Rail workers experience the risks of the job daily, and have made it clear that two-person crews are inherently necessary to ensure the safe operation of our rail systems. While the FRA has considered action on crew size for almost a decade, operational and safety changes across the rail industry the last several years have only heightened the need for strong crew size regulations. By implementing a minimum federal standard across the industry, we can continue to partner with the Biden Administration to address the significant safety concerns presented by railroads operating with single person crews.”

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