BNSF Railway has reached a tentative agreement with its largest labor union to allow a one-man crew to drive trains that are equipped with a federal mandated safety system.
The agreement with the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers General Committee 001 known as SMART-TD — formerly the United Transportation Union — is subject to ratification by its members. Ballots are expected to be sent out this month.
“We have reached an agreement with SMART-TD dealing comprehensively with the major issues facing rail transportation ground service employees in the 21st century,” BNSF Railway said in a statement sent to the Creston News Advertiser. “The tentative agreement, subject to union membership ratification, will allow for locomotive engineers to operate freight trains with the remote support of a new master conductor, instead of a conventional on-board conductor on BNSF routes where Positive Train Control (PTC) is in use.”
The president of the SMART transportation division, John Previsich, wrote a statement against the agreement that said, “No one would permit an airliner to fly with just one pilot, even though they can fly themselves. Trains, which cannot operate themselves, should be no different.”
Currently, all trains on BNSF Railway require a conductor and an engineer. The agreement would eliminate the conductor and the engineer would work with assistance from a “master conductor” working from a control center and the PTC safety system on 60 percent of BNSF Railways, including trains that pass through Creston.
PTC is a satellite-guided system of sensors and computers mandated by Congress in 2008. It helps stop, slow and reroute trains.
“Positive Train Control is a safety overlay, it is not a safety replacement,” said Jim Garrett, a BNSF engineer from Creston. “It should not be, and cannot be a replacement for another set of eyes, another set of ears for the conductor in the cab.”
Garrett has worked for the railroad for 35 years, serving 20 years in Creston as an engineer.
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) does not have a minimum staffing rule at this time.
“If this agreement passed, the only people that will have the power or authority to create a two-man or one-man crew will be the BNSF Railroad or the FRA,” Garrett said. “At that point, the SMART organization won’t have any say in changing the terms of that agreement.”
When Garrett started with BNSF Railway, crews consisted of four or five people depending on if the train had a firefighter on board.
He said moving up the ranks was a slow process, starting out as a head brakeman before building up enough seniority to be the rear brakeman on the caboose. The next step was conductor and finally an engineer.
Eventually, technology was able to get rid of the caboose. Garrett said the biggest cuts to crew size started in 1991.
“In the past, changes to crew consist was hard to argue to maintain that size with technology,” Garrett said. “We have come to the least common denominator (two people in the cab). It cannot be operated safer with one less person in the cab.”
In the BNSF statement, it claims the plan will enhance safety by providing a more predictable work schedule with assigned on-duty times and specific territories for the “master conductors” to monitor and assist if necessary.
“You learned everything through years of experiences,” Garrett said. “There are thousands of things you need to know to operate a train between here and Lincoln, Neb., and only a fraction of that is in the rule book. The rest of it is what’s called ‘tribal knowledge.’ It is the things that you learn with experience.”
While a more predictable schedule for engineers would be beneficial to reduce fatigue, it could mean a major reduction in staff in Creston.
Creston currently has a double-ended pool, making it impossible to create a set schedule. Garrett said the agreement could potentially move engineer jobs to Lincoln, Neb., to create a single-ended pool.
“There has been talk ever since I came to Creston that BNSF wants to close this terminal down and move the crew base to Lincoln,” Garrett said. “This may be the impetus that they need to move.”
A meeting for railroaders and concerned community members is slated for 5:30 p.m. Aug. 25 at Supertel Inn and Conference Center in Creston.
“Therein lies one of the important things about this agreement, it’s not what’s in it, it’s what’s not in it,” Garrett said. “It’s like Swiss cheese, it’s full of holes. There are a lot of unanswered questions about what will happen.”