The Canadian government issued an emergency order Tuesday that bans having a one-person crew on trains carrying hazardous cargo such as crude oil.
The order comes as Canadian transportation officials continue to investigate how a parked, unattended train operated by a Maine railroad company rolled down a hill and crashed in the center of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, setting off explosions that killed 47 people.
The train was operated by Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, based in Hermon.
Tuesday’s order, effective immediately, requires that trains operating in Canada and carrying hazardous cargo have two crew members. It will apply to the Maine railroad when it’s using its rail network in Quebec.
When the company’s trains cross into Maine, however, a one-person crew is allowed. That’s because the Federal Railroad Administration, which regulates railroads in the United States, has no rules prohibiting one-person crews for trains carrying hazardous cargo.
The union that represents the Maine workers on the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway is launching a campaign to ban one-person crews in the U.S.
The “dangerous” practice needs to be eliminated through federal legislation and work rules in labor contracts, said Dennis Pierce, national president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, which has 57,000 active and retired members.
In a written statement, Pierce called on Congress, the White House and other unions in the industry to join the campaign.
The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway has lost much of its freight business since the disaster and is struggling to avoid bankruptcy. It operates in Maine and Quebec and serves customers in Vermont just south of the Quebec border.
Last week, the company laid off 79 of its 179 employees, with the work force in Maine bearing the brunt of the layoffs.
On July 6, a train hauling 72 cars of crude oil rolled down a hill after its engineer parked it and went to a hotel. Canada’s Transportation Safety Board has ruled that the brakes weren’t applied with sufficient force to hold the train in place.
Although the accident isn’t being blamed on the practice of having a one-person crew, its use has come under scrutiny since then.
Ed Burkhardt, chairman of the railroad and president of its parent company, Chicago-based Rail World Inc., was among the first railroad operators in the U.S. to advocate for one-person crews, a money-saving measure made possible by the use of remote-control technology.
Burkhardt could not be reached for comment Tuesday. During a July 10 press conference in Lac-Megantic, he defended the one-person crew policy while blaming the engineer for failing to set enough hand brakes on the train.
“We actually think that one-man crews are safer than two-man crews because there’s less exposure for employee injury and less distraction (for operators),” he said.
In Canada, regulators grant railroads the right to use a one-person crew if they prove that one person can handle all the required operating tasks on a train. However, such permission is unusual. Only two railroad companies are authorized to run one-person train crews carrying non-hazardous cargo: the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway and a small railway that runs through the wilderness of northeastern Quebec and western Labrador.
John Bentley, a spokesman for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, said the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic used one-person crews before workers in Maine joined the union in 2006, and the railroad continued the practice afterward.
The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic is the only Maine railroad that uses one-person crews, said Chalmers “Chop” Hardenbergh of Freeport, who publishes Atlantic Northeast Rails & Ports, a trade publication.
In the U.S., there are no specific regulations requiring a certain number of crew members, but the use of a one-person crew is “very rare” because it’s difficult to comply with other federal safety rules with only one person on a train, said Rob Kulat, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration. He said the vast majority of railroads in the industry use a two-person crew.
If a train backs up, for example, someone must protect the rear of the train and signal the engineer that everything is clear. That person is usually the second crew member, Kulat said.
Some smaller railroads with slow-moving trains post the second crew member in a company truck that follows the train, he said.
Alan Irving, a Falmouth resident who has worked overseas to restructure rail systems and infrastructure for the private sector and the World Bank, said he was surprised to learn that the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway has been allowed to operate trains carrying flammable cargo through the state with a one-person crew.
“The engineer needs the support of an operating assistant, while both running and shutting down, to run his train safely,” Irving said.
Because freight train crew size is “completely unregulated” at the federal level, Pierce said, “railroads will do whatever maximizes profit.”
Pierce compared the train disaster in Lac-Megantic with the collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh in May that killed more than 1,100 workers.
“We are doomed to endure more unnecessary tragedy in the future so long as government fails to fulfill its responsibility to the safety of workers and the public,” he said.
The Canadian government on Tuesday also prohibited the practice of leaving trains with dangerous cargo unattended on a main track, and ordered railroads to prevent unauthorized entry into the locomotive cab on such trains, according to the Canadian Press.
Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: