September 3, 2013

Lac-Megantic adds voices on crew size issue

Since a 1963 law, federal officials have let the railroad owners and unions settle the safety vs. money fight, but that may be changing.

By Kevin Miller
Staff Writer

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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.


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:

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.

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