OMAHA, Neb. — How many people does it take to operate a locomotive?
For the railroad industry, the answer is simple: One.
The industry is hoping this year’s scheduled completion of an automatic railroad braking system will bolster its argument to reduce the number of crew members in most trains from two to just one. But labor groups argue that single-person crews would make trains more accident prone.
The $15 billion braking system, known as positive train control, is aimed at reducing human error by automatically stopping trains in certain situations like when it’s in danger of colliding, derailing because of excessive speed, entering track under maintenance or traveling the wrong direction because of switching mistakes.
“Technology, in the form of positive train control, does a lot of the work — virtually all of the work — that a conductor does sitting in the cab,” said Union Pacific CEO Lance Fritz.
For that reason, the industry says there is no need for more than one crew member to operate a train — a key issue in contract talks with railroad unions that began in November and could go on for years. Railroads tried unsuccessfully to reduce crew size in previous contract talks.
“I’m 100 percent confident that we would not go down this path if we weren’t certain that fewer people in the cab of the locomotive had no impact on safety,” Fritz said.
Labor groups, however, argue that conductors provide a crucial safety backup in the cab as a second set of eyes to help monitor conditions and the train, and the automatic braking system isn’t perfect.
“Positive train control only keeps trains from wrecking in certain circumstances. There is still a need for a second man in the crew,” said Ron Kaminkow, an Amtrak engineer who serves as general secretary of the labor advocacy group Railroad Workers United.
During a cross-country rail journey, the engineer is at the train’s controls, calling out signals and taking directives from dispatchers. All of that is built into positive train control, according to Fritz.
But Kaminkow, who worked for freight railroads earlier in his career, said having a conductor in the cab helps guard against fatigue when engineers and conductors are working irregular shifts with early start times or facing inclement weather.
The National Transportation Safety Board says more than 150 train crashes since 1969 could have been prevented by positive train control, which was required by a 2008 law approved after a commuter train collided head-on with a freight train near Los Angeles, killing 25 and injuring more than 100.