In wake of Canadian rail tragedy, BLET president calls for end to one-man crews

A little more than two weeks after a runaway train derailed, exploded, and killed 47 residents of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, the federal agency that oversees Canadian rail safety issued an emergency safety directive that among other things banned one-man crews on trains loaded with dangerous material.

A few days prior to the issuance of the emergency directive in Canada, Dennis Pierce, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) urged the federal government of the United States to adopt regulations that require trains to have two-man crews.

“I am compelled to clearly state our organization’s position regarding one-person train operations, our ongoing struggle to prevent its spread, and why this issue
matters to everyone,” said Pierce in an extended statement about the need for the US government to take action.

The Canadian Transportation Board (CTB) is conducting an investigation into the tragic derailment and hasn’t issued an official finding on its cause or causes.

But on Friday, July 19 nearly two weeks after the investigation began, CTB issued a safety advisory. After receiving the advisory, Transport Canada, the agency that oversees the nation’s rail safety, issued the emergency safety directive.

Topping the list of new safety measures spelled out in the directive is a ban on one-man crews when trains are hauling dangerous goods.

The train that exploded leveling much of Lac-Megantic, a small town in Eastern Quebec, near the border with Maine, was operated by the Montreal, Maine, and Atlantic (MMA) Railroad whose headquarters is located in Bangor, Maine. MMA provides short line rail service in Maine, Vermont, and Quebec.

MMA like many other short line operators in the US and Canada uses one-man crews on some of its trains. The train that exploded had a one-man crew.

The explosion occurred after the engineer set the brakes on the train at the end of his shift and went off duty. The brakes did not hold, and the train careened out of control. The train contained 72 tank cars filled with highly explosive fuel oil.

A class action suit filed by residents of Lac-Megantic charges MMA with negligence for operating the train with a one-man crew, and the Quebec provincial police recently raided the Canadian headquarters of MMA to  gathers evidence for possible criminal charges.

Pierce in his statement said the BLET has waged a 20-year fight to stop the spread of one-man crews on US rail lines.

Pierce said that one-man crews pose a danger to the public and to rail workers and pointed to the advantages of having at least two well-qualified crew members on trains.

“All of the safety advantages of the (two-man) crew. . . –observation of both sides of trains for defects, dual-sided vigilance at road crossings, separating trains to maintain open road crossings, someone to stop the train should the engineer become disabled — simply disappear in a single-person operation,” said Pierce.

“A fair analogy would be if the airline industry wanted to remove the first officer from the cockpit because the captain has computer systems onboard to assist him or her in flying the aircraft,” he added.

Rail companies on the other hand have opposed the ban or any limitations on one-man crews.

Before the 1960s, train crews usually consisted of five or six members, but in the 1960s carriers began to reduce crew sizes, and today, two-man crews are the norm, except on some short lines such as MMA where the use of one-man crews is common.

BLET has fought for contract language that would severely restrict the use of one-man crews, but short line companies such as Wheeling & Lake Erie Railway and Western New York & Pennsylvania Railroad have dug their heels in and insisted that they retain the right to use one-man crews whenever they want.

The only way to limit the use of one-man crews, said Pierce, is for the federal government “to take action to protect the safety of railroad operating crews and the public
by putting an end, once and for all, to the inherently unsafe single-person operation of freight trains.”

But, said Pierce, the federal government has been timid when it comes to regulating business and has consistently allowed rail carriers to put profit before safety.

“The fact of the matter is that government is increasingly afraid of taking any action that some business, somewhere, will oppose, and this problem has become
worse in this era of multinational corporations,” said Pierce. “When it comes to safety, this nation’s railroads are bound by federal regulations, but rarely do they go
beyond those regulations when they would conflict with the bottom line.”

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