By David Booth
Booth is a Retired Norfolk & Western conductor with 42 years of service and a lifelong rail historian. He lives in Roanoke.
Sometime in the near future the nations railroads plans to implement the elimination of freight train conductors on most trains. The rail industry will use the term technology as the reason, when in reality, it is Wall Street causing the elimination. What does this mean for the public?
Technology does play a role but what Positive Train Control can’t do is be a second pair of eyes to the engineer. The conductor normally reminds the engineer about speed restrictions, rules in effect governing the operation of the train and also assists inspecting his train for any potential trouble the engineer can’t see.
With the implementation of PTC, the engineer has additional computer screens to monitor plus actually running the train. While the engineer monitors additional screens, the conductor can notice external problems while the engineer is momentarily distracted.
Trains do have mechanical problems that require a conductor to leave the engine to walk beside the train troubleshooting. An example of this would be a rail car coupler, the device that allows multiple rail cars to stay connected, would break and need replacement. The engineer can’t do this by himself. I understand that the railroads plans to have a roving conductor in a company truck to assist with these problems. A lot of locations on the railroad are inaccessible by road.
If a very long 150 car plus train breaks a coupler on a conductor-less train the roving conductor could easily be 50 to 80 miles away tending to another train in distress. Meanwhile this 150 car train is blocking road crossings. What now?
The crossings remain blocked until the conductor can arrive. People are late for work, appointments missed and possibly a medical emergency is being delayed. As a retired 42 year experienced conductor I know that the planned elimination of freight train conductors will be a very costly mistake.
Once it required four or five crew members to man a freight train and at times we wished we had a sixth person to assist in some of the more difficult problems.
Besides the operating challenges that would hamper the public, trains carry a lot of hazardous materials. I don’t see how a one-man crew handling a huge 8-to-10,000 ton train with hazmat materials would be considered safe passing through many towns.
The planned elimination of these critical jobs will also weaken the railroad retirement system. The nations railroads are enjoying record profits.
Please write or call your legislative representatives to pass bill H.R. 1748 safe freight act of 2019 which provides for a two person crew on freight trains.