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Union Pacific, the Omaha, Nebraska-based rail giant, revealed a proposed pilot program on Tuesday to “redeploy” train conductors to grounds-based positions. 

The announcement comes amid hearings at the Federal Rail Administration about a proposed rule that would require railroads to have at least two crew members in the cab of a locomotive. Freight trains are typically operated by two employees: a conductor and an engineer. 

Class I railroads, which dominate the $80 billion freight rail industry, have pushed for years to eliminate the in-cab conductor role. They say much of the conductor job has been largely automated out as most rail in the United States operate under a bundle of technologies called positive train control, which automatically prevents train collisions. Trains largely only need engineers to operate, according to railroads. 

However, unions and rail employees disagree that automation has made the role of rail conductor redundant. They also say that having only one person in the cab of a freight train would make the job more unsafe. It could also threaten communities through which railroads traverse. 

Union Pacific’s pilot program rebrands the conductor role into “expeditors.” Rod Doerr, vice president of crew management and interline operations at Union Pacific, outlined the pilot in the Tuesday announcement:

During the pilot, the conductor will remain on the train and continue to perform his or her role; documenting dates and times of service activities and how long it took to perform the activities. The expeditor will do the same from the ground. At the end of the pilot, Union Pacific will compare the results and adjust the plan as necessary.

If the pilots are a success, expeditors will only be employed on railroad territories that have Positive Train Control (PTC) or a PTC equivalent technology. Approximately 90% of UP’s train miles are covered by this technology. The remaining portion of the Union Pacific network will employ two-person train crews.

Continuing to have the in-cab conductor would allow Union Pacific to explore the grounds-based expeditor role — and potentially prove that they’re as effective as those in the cab — without violating potential federal rules that would require two-person crews. 

Union Pacific said its “concept” was that no jobs would be eliminated and wages would remain the same for conductors. 

It’s not the first time that railroads have slashed the number of folks in a locomotive cab. As recently as the 1980s, up to five people would operate a single train: an engineer, conductor, head brakeman, second brakeman and sometimes an engineer trainee. Automation has made some of those roles obsolete. 

A controversial idea for train operations

Through 2022, rail labor contract negotiations made headline news as employees demanded better working conditions, particularly when it comes to time spent at home. 

Rail companies like Union Pacific have used those arguments from rail employees and unions to bolster their argument for a grounds-based conductor role. 

“As a ground-based job with consistent, regular shifts, employees will be home routinely to take part in quality family time,” Doerr said on the Union Pacific blog. “They will no longer be living out of a hotel or suitcase and can rely on planned rest. This will make for happier, healthier and safer employees.” 

Unions that represent rail employees don’t seem to agree with this concept. That includes the SMART Transportation Division (SMART TD), the largest of the 12 rail unions with 37,400 members. 

“There is no greater risk to the safety of railroad workers and the communities they serve than the consideration of a reduction in crew size in the cab of a locomotive,” SMART TD President Jeremy Ferguson said at the Federal Railroad Administration hearings on Monday. “Having conductors on trains saves lives and prevents disasters in ways technology cannot. Artificial intelligence absolutely has a role to play, but it cannot replace authentic human intelligence in railroading.”

European operations suggest that one-person train crews could be safe — but there’s a catch 

European freight trains, as well as smaller U.S. freight and passenger trains, that operate with just one individual have proved safe. However, those trains tend to be far shorter and lighter than U.S. ones. Their schedules may also be more bearable for employees. 

In the U.S., trains are becoming longer and longer, at times blocking crucial road crossings. According to a 2019 federal study, the average length of a train has increased by 25% since 2008. Some trains are up to 3 miles long, according to the study. 

Doerr said in the Union Pacific announcement that grounds-based expeditors would be less fatigued. They would also be able to drive directly to locomotive cars that need service. That could decrease the amount of time spent at public crossings. 

In September, FreightWaves reported on a Norfolk Southern conductor who fainted while driving a train in January. His co-worker, the engineer on the train, was able to step in and call for emergency services. The experience solidified for the two men the importance of having a larger crew. Norfolk Southern declined to comment on the incident. 

“If it would have been just him on there, who knows how long it would have been until they [the ambulances] got there?” Travis Pierce, the Norfolk Southern engineer, told FreightWaves. “If it was just me, what would have happened? Would I have died? There’s no way to get an ambulance or medical services if we can’t call them.”

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