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FRA withdraws minimum crew size proposal

How many crew members does it take to move a 20-ton train? According to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), there's no clear answer.

The FRA recently withdrew an Obama-era proposal that would have forced railroads to use minimum crew sizes based on the type of train. With its decision, the FRA favored the 39 comments made against the staffing requirements over the more than 1,500 comments in favor of them. By ruling against the proposed crew size mandates, the FRA is trying to preempt all state laws for crew size requirements--thanks to the federal government's Constitutional powers over interstate commerce.

Do you need more than one person to run a train?

The FRA reported that more than half the comments it received in favor of crew size requirements were from current and former railroad workers. Many of them shared personal stories to support their arguments, and the FRA found their stories often returned to the same four central themes:

  • The train crew's duties were too much for a single person
  • Fatigue would be a larger factor for single-person crews
  • Single-person crews could run afoul of the certification requirements for engineers and conductors
  • The remaining crew would need to deal with even more complicated technologies

In the face of these anecdotal arguments, however, the FRA sided with the railroads because it couldn't find "reliable or conclusive statistical data" to show that larger crews were any safer than one-person crews.

What's next for California's rail workers?

The president of the Association of American Railroads (AAR), was swift to offer praise for FRA's decision. He said it put crew size discussions back where they belonged--between railroads and their labor forces. He pointed to the railroad's allegedly "low" injury rates. He also claimed that railroads were becoming even safer with the installation of Positive Train Control (PTC).

However, as the AAR cheered the FRA's decision, the railroads' actions appear to undercut their concerns for improved safety. Even while they tout the benefits of PTC, they have applied for extension after extension to delay its installation.

How safe is safe enough?

Statistics support the argument that people traveling and working on America's railways are, in fact, safer than the nation's drivers and motorcyclists. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported only 8 fatalities in 2018 and a total of just 193 injuries. But there's no reason to accept even that many. California's rail workers have a right to push for zero injuries, and if the railroads neglect their safety in any way, those workers have a right to compensation under FELA.

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