Illinois At the Crossroads of Railroad Staffing Dispute

Sep 9, 2019

Illinois has become involved in a national debate over minimum staffing ratios on freight trains. 

In May, the Federal Railroad Administration withdrew a proposed rule to require minimum crew sizes. 

"After closely examining the train crew staffing issue and conducting significant outreach to industry and public stakeholders, FRA determined that issuing any regulation requiring a minimum number of train crewmembers would not be justified because such a regulation is unnecessary for a railroad operation to be conducted safely at this time," wrote Ronald Batory, administrator of the FRA. 

The rule was initially propsed by the FRA in 2016, following a fatal 2013 accident in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, Canada, when an unattended freight train rolled down a hill, killing 42 people. Another 2013 accident involving a BNSF train in Casselton, North Dakota caused no fatalities but drew widespread media attention.

The FRA received nearly 1,600 comments on their decision to withdraw the minimum staffing rule proposal. All but 39 backed the requirements. Most of the supporters of a rule identified themselves as current, former or retired train crewmembers. The opponents were largely associated with industry groups. 

As part of the decision, the agency also prevented states from passing their own mandates. But in August, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a law requiring two-person crews on trains passing through Illinois in direct contradiction of the federal directive.

The bill was sponsored by state Sen. Terry Link (D-Indian Creek). 

“With federal bureaucrats failing to act to protect public safety, it is clear states must act on their own,” Link said in a statement. “This is simply a matter of protecting the general public. Two-person crews can react more efficiently to mechanical failures or equipment malfunctions and can potentially save lives in a serious situation.”

The industry-backed Association of American Railroads argues staffing is a collective bargaining issue that bears no weight on train safety, especially as more processes are automated.

“Positive Train Control (PTC) – new technologies designed to prevent certain types of human error and a top priority of the Administration – is one game-changer; others not yet imagined may follow," said Ian Jefferies, the president and CEO of the AAR, in prepared remarks. "Allowing railroads the flexibility to adjust their operations to reflect the capabilities of technologies like PTC will help advance railroads’ mission to achieve an accident-free future."

Wes Ekstedt, a BNSF train conductor from Galesburg and the secretary for a local SMART TD trade union, said there needs to be two pairs of eyes on the tracks. 

“It’s pretty obvious for us as crew members, that having two members up there allows us multiple eyes on the track if anything were to impede us," he said. Currently, he operates with an engineer in the cab with him, but he said one or both of the current jobs may go away. 

Ekstedt said the railroad companies are looking to trim spending on employee wages and benefits to make up for new safety technology purchases mandated by the government. He argues cutting back on human personnel is dangerous. 

Nevada and Washington state are suing the federal government to override the rule, as are various unions.