Freight train staff encourage two-man crew for public safety
LINCOLN, Nebraska (Nebraska Examiner). One evening at 5:21 a.m., a freight train crew could not determine if a pickup truck was parked on the railroad tracks due to the curvature of the track.
Although the train had improved technology, Amanda Snide said there was no indication that the truck was there. The emergency brakes were applied at 38 mph to stop the 21,000 ton train in time.
At 5:23 p.m., Snide, a Union Pacific conductor, said the train had stopped just in time, nine feet from impact.
Snide and other trains told the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee stories about how two-man train crews helped save lives.
Jeff Cooley, president of the Local 200, detailed his case of rescuing a 4-year-old girl who was sitting on the tracks crying because her parents were fighting at home. Cooley said that as soon as he saw her hair blowing in the wind, he knew he had to stop.
Legislative Bill 31, proposed by State Senator Mike Jacobson of North Platte, would require a minimum of two crew members on freight trains. The bill has been introduced for several years in a row, but to no avail.
There are some proposals in Congress to require a two-man crew following a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio that brought environmental uncertainty to the area.
However, supporters of the Nebraska bill urged lawmakers not to wait for the federal government to act.
“Nebraska has a chance to make a difference. You have a chance to make a difference,” Snide said. “Guys, you have a chance to help make Nebraska safe for more than just us, the locomotive drivers who ride our trains and the cities we pass through.”
Opponents of the proposal, mostly made up of railroad organizations and the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce, said the issue was best addressed through collective bargaining.
They said that if a decision was to be made, the Legislature would have to turn to the federal government.
The need for conductors
Jacobson said at least eight other states require two-man crews, which he says can help prevent collisions, derailments and blocked crossings. This is because train drivers must remain in the engine with many responsibilities.
The conductors are the second crew members, the right support, who inspect the train, communicate with the dispatcher and driver, and act as first responders.
“Conductors are essential to the safe and efficient operation of a railroad,” Jacobson said.
Jason Meyers, who said he started as a conductor in 2006 and became an engineer in 2012, stressed that the LB 31 won’t change anything.
Instead, it would help maintain the status quo and keep the two-man crew as the safety standard.
“Safety is very, very important to all of us,” Meyers said. “We are returning home safe and sound because we are working hard. We choose it. It’s facilitated through the railroads, but it’s on us.”
Collective bargaining, public safety
Rod Dorr, vice president of Crew Management System and Interline Operations for Union Pacific, said crew requirements are largely the result of collective bargaining under the Railroad Labor Act.
The evolution of technology has been a “catalyst” for negotiations, Doerr said, but Jacobson’s law could hurt future negotiations, Doerr said.
“Any legislation that attempts to open up the terms of these collective agreements threatens the integrity of labor agreements and jeopardizes future cooperation in negotiations,” Dörr said. “After all, who knows the railroad challenges facing the industry better than the very people who operate and manage these operations?”
State Senator Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha, a committee member who also added her name to the law on Monday, slammed Doerr and other opponents for using a two-man crew — the current standard — as a “bargaining chip” for pay, benefits, or safety. .
“This is the trump card that you are asking the Legislature, and I don’t think you are arguing why we should do this,” Kavanaugh said.
Jeff Davies of BNSF Railway said a culture that promotes safety is important, but companies need to be able to use the technology they have invested in.
Nicole Bogen, legal counsel for the Nebraska Central Railroad, expressed concerns about the broad, common language in Jacobson’s proposal and whether her client would comply.
Jacobson said this was done on purpose to leave a free hand in accordance with the law.
Bogen added that there could be legal issues with current federal law, but Jacobson countered that the two-person requirement has persisted in the past and is likely to continue to be enforced.
Ron Sedlacek, general counsel for the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the chamber is recommending uniform rules rather than patchwork across states.
Jacobson said he, too, wants to see the standards of the federal government and the Federal Railroad Administration.
“But so far it’s going in the right direction,” Jacobson said.
Criticism of the Civil Service Commission
The recent crash near Gothenburg, Nebraska also caught the attention of Gov. Jim Pillen of the Public Service Commission.
“There have been several derailments in Nebraska recently while key railroad inspector positions at the PSC have been vacant for years,” Pillan said in a statement Monday. “I encourage the PSC to refocus on its core responsibilities and continue to work hard to improve rail safety.”
Tim Schramm, a member of the commission, testified in a neutral capacity on LB 31 and instead focused on why the commission had not hired a track inspector for at least ten years.
Schramm said the reason the position was not filled was because appropriations to fund it were rejected by the Legislature every year.
“The Commission recognizes the importance of ensuring public safety and the safety of rail workers who are doing the important job of moving essential supplies and merchandise across the state,” Schramm said.
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