Federal infrastructure package could resolve railroad crew debate

The Wyoming Legislature has long wrestled with the question of whether to mandate two-person crews on the freight trains that traverse Wyoming’s more than 1,800 miles of track. 

Now, the federal government may take action that resolves the issue — if the infrastructure package currently stalled in Congress passes. 

The two-person crew mandate was adopted earlier this summer as part of the House of Representatives’ INVEST In America Act. The massive infrastructure spending packageincludes hundreds of millions of dollars in transportation spending, along with an overhaul of federal regulations and programs that apply to the use of those dollars.

Proponents of  minimum crew sizes — including railroad labor unions — argue that such rules create safer conditions for workers traveling the rails through a desolate and challenging landscape. Opponents attack the idea as expensive red tape and undue government intervention in private business. 

All crews currently operating in Wyoming count at least two members, but the future is uncertain as railroad companies grapple withongoing cost-cutting and a worsening long-term economic outlook for bread-and-butter freight like coal — which accounts for more than 90% of all rail freight traffic in Wyoming, according to federal data.

While only a handful of states have passed two-person crew mandates, railroad advocates see an urgent need for such a requirement in Wyoming where companies like Union Pacific have long pushed for flexibility in their labor agreements for smaller crews.

The railroads have touted their improving safety record and have offered alternatives, like mobile relief teams — essentially a roving back-up conductor in a truck. But company-led alternatives matter little in the desolation of rural Wyoming, said Stan Blake, a former state lawmaker and state director for the railroad’s union, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART).

“No matter what kind of technology [the railroads] have, the first person on the scene [of an accident] will be the engineer and the conductor,” Blake said. “That is, if they’re both still alive.”

“In some of these far-flung places, how soon will it be before a manager can get out there to assist?” Blake asked.

Opposition

While two-person crew proposals have twice passed the Wyoming House of Representatives in recent years, the policy has yet to survive the Wyoming Senate.

Critics have argued that crew minimums amount to improper government incursion into private business. The measures interfere with railroads’ contract negotiations at a time industry leaders say increased automation and new safety technologies have eliminated the need for the traditional crew configurations.

“Technology has reduced the need for a conductor in the cab,” Union Pacific spokesman Mike Jaixen wrote in a statement to WyoFile. “Conductors will continue to play an important role on the railroad, but it is outside the cab on the ground, overseeing the cargo across a predefined territory.”

“Individual states mandating crew size limit our ability to compete for business in a world where technology is changing the transportation industry,” he added. “Additionally, railroads negotiate many aspects of rail operations, such as pay rates and work rules, through existing collective bargaining processes under the Railway Labor Act. Any changes to crew size would also occur through this process.”

Representatives for BNSF Railway, which also operates in Wyoming, did not respond to a request for comment.

There is an economic incentive for the railroads to reduce personnel. While coal freight saw a slight uptick in the first two quarters of 2021, according to an earnings callwith Union Pacific executives last week, the company remains concerned about the mineral’s long-term prospects, citing the future planned retirements of coal-fired power plants and increased demand from competing energy sources. Companies like BNSF have reported similar trends in recent months.

“Based on the current and future natural gas prices, we view current coal demand as momentary,” said UP spokesperson Robynn Tysver. “We expect coal shipments to face continued decline due to future-planned retirements, as well as increased demand from competing energy sources.”

As coal has declined, so has the number of railroaders: in 2008, major railroad companies employed just under 3,300 people in Wyoming, according to figures from the federal Railroad Retirement Board. Ten years later, that number had fallen to under 2,500 employees.  

Whether the federal government actually moves forward with a federal two-man crew mandate remains to be seen. The Federal Railroad Administration recently ruled against setting a federal crew size mandate, saying it found little data to support the assertion that operations with two people in the cab are any safer than those with one. 

Blake disagrees, especially given Union Pacific’s admission in its Q2 earnings call that personnel injuries have increased over the last several months despite reductions in staffing and a declining number of equipment malfunctions.

“The technology has helped,” Blake said. “But technology and two people on a train is the ultimate safety measure. Why saw one leg off of that stool? It’s to save money for the railroad. We have a saying here at the railroad, and that’s ‘uphill slow, downhill fast; profits first, safety last.’”

While the INVEST Act passed the U.S. House of Representatives with just two Republican supporters, the dominant discussion on Capitol Hill has focused on a more watered-down infrastructure package that achieved bipartisan support in the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

It is unclear whether two-person crews are a part of that package, or whether it has enough support to pass.

A train loaded with Powder River Basin coal sits sidelined near Rozet. Wyoming’s Powder River Basin coal complex is served by two railroads, Union Pacific and BNSF Railway, which predominantly use 2-mile long “unit” trains to ship coal to power plants in more than 30 states. (Dustin Bleizeffer)

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