Freight trains crossing the state could be operated by no fewer than two people under legislation heard by the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee Feb. 24.
LB192, introduced by Hyannis Sen. Al Davis, would require that any train or light engine used to move freight be operated by at least two crew members. The restriction would not include trains used for hostler service or by utility employees.
Violations would incur fines of $100 to $500, depending on the number of previous offenses.
Davis said technological developments that allow trains to be partially controlled remotely are prompting railroad companies to develop plans to reduce crews to one person. This would create a public safety issue, Davis said, because many Nebraska communities have only a single railroad crossing. In the case of a stopped train, he said, emergency responders would be forced to wait for a second crew member to arrive to clear the crossing.
In 2012, Davis added, 511 million tons of railway freight originated, terminated or passed through Nebraska. That congestion, he said, combined with understaffed trains, makes for a potentially dangerous situation.
“Derailments happen every day in this country,” Davis said. “I don’t think Nebraska wants to take that kind of risk.”
Pat Pfeifer, chairman of the legislative board for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, testified in support of the bill. Each member of a two-person crew—an engineer and a conductor—has specialized tasks, he said, and one person cannot perform all of the duties safely. Trains encounter too many unpredictable situations to rely on automation to replace people, he added.
“No matter how good the technology is, it still takes a person to control it,” Pfeifer said.
Jeff Vogt, an engineer for Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railway, also spoke in favor of the bill. He said the long and irregular hours worked by railroad employees can contribute to fatigue, which causes accidents. In addition to helping him stay awake, Vogt said, his conductor can see areas of the train not seen by the engineer.
“I know that having another crew member has made my job safer,” he said.
BNSF Railway engineer Jason Meyers agreed, saying that the engineer and conductor provide a “check and balance” system for train operation. In his testimony supporting the bill, Meyers said that increased transportation of hazardous materials by rail has made it critical for two people to monitor the tracks. Citing the 307 railway crossings on his route between McCook and Lincoln, Meyer said he and his conductor have a great responsibility to keep the public safe.
“Ninety percent of those crossings have no protection besides a stop sign and our eyes,” Meyers said.
Jeff Davis, director of state government affairs for BNSF Railway, testified in opposition to the bill, saying railways have never been safer in the history of the industry. Technology has helped make trains with two-person crews much safer than when trains routinely used five- and six-person crews, he said.
“We have 99.999 percent of our trains carrying hazardous materials arrive safely without accident,” he said.
Mike Phillips, general director of labor relations for Union Pacific Railroad, also spoke in opposition to the bill. He said LB192 could interfere with negotiations between unions and railroad companies. Appropriate crew sizes should be determined by the railroads, not state government, he said.
“We’re not asking for one-person crews,” Phillips said. “We need to be able to remain flexible.”
The committee took no immediate action on the bill.