WASHINGTON – The nation was on the brink of a crippling national strike by railroad workers in the summer of 1963 when Congress stepped in to settle a years-long battle over how many men it took to safely operate a train.

The bill, signed by President John F. Kennedy in August 1963, set a historic precedent by forcing labor unions and railroad management into arbitration, a process that eventually allowed rail companies to trim their payrolls yet also protected the unionized workers who filled those jobs.

Fifty years later, some of the same arguments over safety (and jobs) versus necessity (and money) still echo in Washington as the unions and railroads debate whether one person should be allowed to operate a train hauling hazardous materials.

But the 2013 debate is taking place in the shadow cast by the 47 people killed by a Maine-bound train that barreled into Lac-Megantic, Quebec, derailed and exploded with tremendous fury.

“It’s not clear whether crew size had any impact on this particular accident, but … it is one (factor) that has been associated with this accident,” Robert Lauby, the Federal Railroad Administration’s chief safety officer, said last week. “And although it may not be causal, it is something that the public demands that we take a look at and make sure we are handling it appropriately.”

CREW SIZE AN ISSUE 50 YEARS AGO

The date Aug. 28, 1963, is remembered for a much different reason than Kennedy signing the forced-arbitration rail bill. A few blocks from the White House, at the Lincoln Memorial, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech to the largest civil rights rally in U.S. history.

But the rail bill was big enough news to earn top-of-the-page treatment alongside the March on Washington in the next day’s New York Times under a headline declaring, “Kennedy Signs Bill Averting Rail Strike — Precedent Is Set.”

The legislation was, indeed, a landmark in the history of America’s railroads. It also has direct connections to a current debate over crew size intensified by the fiery train disaster this summer near the Maine-Quebec border.

By late 1963, labor and management had reached a compromise that would allow the railroads to drop from five crew members to two, including by eliminating fireman positions responsible for keeping the fires going aboard steam locomotives. The industry had largely switched to diesel locomotives. The deal allowed most affected union workers to stay on until retirement, however.

Today, the vast majority of freight trains in the U.S. and Canada still operate with at least two crew members — a conductor and a locomotive engineer. Yet minimum crew size is set at the collective bargaining table between the unions and the major railroads, not by federal regulators in Washington.

For more than a decade, the two sides have periodically clashed over attempts by the industry to allow a single-person crew on some trains. A handful of smaller — or so-called short-line — railroads have already dropped back to one-man crews, a fact unknown to many residents of trackside towns until July 6.

RUNAWAY TRAIN DRAWS SCRUTINY

A single engineer had been behind the controls of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic train en route from North Dakota oil fields to a refinery in coastal New Brunswick on July 5. The engineer parked the train — which had five locomotives, 72 crude oil tankers and one buffer car stretching for nearly a mile, or 4,700 feet — on the main tracks about seven miles outside of Lac-Megantic and retired for the night.

Roughly two hours later, the small lakefront community became the site of Canada’s worst rail disaster in nearly 150 years when the now-crewless train derailed in the heart of the town. Besides killing 47 people, the resulting explosions caused more than $200 million in damage.

Canadian investigators have yet to release many details. A Montreal, Maine & Atlantic official, however, has suggested publicly that the engineer failed to set enough hand brakes to hold the train after the locomotive’s air brakes shut down when firefighters turned the engine off to battle a small fire.

James Stem, national legislative director with the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers union, places the blame at the feet of company officials, however.

What happened in Lac-Megantic, Stem said, was the cumulative result of multiple “bad decisions” and safety shortcuts by managers determined to run a train with a one-man crew. Stem insisted that one person could not properly test the brakes and was unlikely to take the time to walk the length of the train — in this case a mile in the dark — to set all of the necessary backup hand brakes.

“The very nature of this business is you need two people to do what it takes to operate that train,” Stem said in an interview. “Once the decision is made to try to operate with one person, you have to make other decisions” affecting safety.

Rail industry representatives caution against rushed policy changes before all of the factors in the Lac-Megantic incident are known.

“Obviously there are issues that are appropriate for us to address,” Michael Rush with the Association of American Railroads, the trade group for major carriers, told a rail safety panel last week. “But really a key missing fact for all of us — a set of facts — is exactly what happened. And hopefully we will get that information eventually.”

DETERMINING WHAT NEEDS FIXING

Statistics show that railroads are remarkably safe. The industry boasts that more than 99.9 percent of the 1.8 million carloads of hazardous materials shipped by rail in 2010 arrived at their destinations without incident. And the vast majority of those that didn’t involved minor spills or mishaps that never make the news.

The problem for railroads is that when major accidents do happen, they can quickly rise to catastrophic levels. Less than one week after the deadly incident in Lac-Megantic, six people were killed in a derailment in France. About 10 days later, more than 70 died in a horrific derailment caught on video in Spain.

Train accidents happen for a bevy of reasons: rails split, car couplers fail, vehicles encroach on tracks, and beaver dams burst and wash out railroad beds. But human error is often a factor. And advocates for multiperson crews insist that more eyes can help detect and avert a human-caused disaster.

On Thursday, 50-plus members of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Railroad Safety Advisory Committee gathered in downtown Washington for the first-ever emergency meeting of the panel. The panel’s sole topic was implications for crude oil and hazardous materials transport after Lac-Megantic.

The panel — composed of representatives from railroads, unions and industries that depend on rail — has been charged with recommending possible minimum crew size rules as well as additional restrictions on where and how rail companies can leave hazmat trains unattended.

Meanwhile, Maine’s two members of the U.S. House of Representatives — Democratic Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree — have introduced legislation to require two-man crews on all freight trains.

Labor unions and railroad companies have clashed over how many people it takes to safely operate a train ever since workers began organizing. With the exception of forced arbitration, however, federal officials have historically steered clear of the issue and, instead, allowed the two sides to hash it out at the collective bargaining table.

“The authority is there, but perhaps it is instructive that it hasn’t been used,” said Frank Wilner, author of “Understanding the Railway Labor Act” and a former official at both the Association of American Railroads industry group and one of the two big unions representing rail workers.

CREW TOO SMALL, OR ‘FREAK’ CRASH?

The Federal Railroad Administration has made clear, however, that the agency believes safety is “enhanced” by a minimum of two crew members on a train. Agency Administrator Joseph Szabo said he prefers that any policy changes emerge through the advisory committee collaborative process, but the agency retains the right to develop crew-size rules if the committee fails to deliver.

Wilner, for one, does not believe the agency will forge the path itself despite the Lac-Megantic incident, which he described as a “freak accident that had nothing to do with whether there was a one-person or a two-person crew on the train.”

“I don’t think anybody can come down and say definitively that if you have a one-person crew then safety will suffer,” said Wilner, who recently wrote a lengthy piece on the issue for Railway Age magazine. “So the bottom line will probably be economic, and that will be negotiated at the bargaining table.”

Stem, with one of the two major rail unions, hopes otherwise.

“We think the (railroad administration) should mandate two people on all train crews,” he said.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at (207) 317-6256 or at: kmiller@mainetoday.com


Correction: This article was updated at 9:45 a.m., Sept. 3, 2013, to correct the crew member positions affected by the 1963 forced arbitration between railroads and labor unions. An earlier version incorrectly stated the name and purpose of the positions.