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Union Pacific has become the second major freight railroad in recent weeks to back away from the industry's longstanding push to cut train crews down to one person as lawmakers and regulators increasingly focus on rail safety following last month's fiery derailment in Ohio.
The Omaha, Nebraska-based railroad said in a March 25 statement that it had reached an agreement with the union that represents conductors to drop its proposal to take those workers out of the cabs of locomotives just months after it was pressing to test out the idea of stationing conductors in trucks in parts of its 23-state network. Norfolk Southern made a similar announcement several days earlier.
The Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern train that forced the evacuation of roughly half the town of East Palestine near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border after officials released and burned toxic chemicals is what sparked the renewed interest in railroad safety.
A bipartisan bill that's gaining support in Congress would require railroads to maintain two-person crews and make several other changes designed to reduce the chances of future derailments. And regulators, who are also pushing railroads to make reforms, were already considering a rule that would require two-person crews.
The major freight railroads have long argued that technological advances — particularly the automatic braking system they were required to install in recent years — had made it unnecessary to have a second person in every locomotive. And railroad executives had said they believed that moving conductors off of trains would improve their quality of life by giving them more predictable schedules and keeping them from going on the road.
But the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers union and the other rail unions have long refused to agree to reducing the size of train crews because they believe train conductors play a crucial safety role and they want to preserve jobs.
The unions say conductors help monitor track conditions and radio communications while ensuring that engineers remain alert and respond to any emergencies or mechanical problems on the train. In the case of a derailment or collision, conductors are the first ones to respond before any additional help can arrive and they provide emergency responders key details about what a train is hauling.
Union Pacific Executive Vice President Beth Whited said the railroad will now focus on other ways to address the concerns about demanding schedules that workers expressed during last fall's difficult contract negotiations. The rail industry reached the brink of a strike that could have crippled the economy before Congress intervened in December and imposed a contract to prevent a walkout.
"We are pleased that Union Pacific is focusing on quality of life for our conductor workforce," said Jeremy Ferguson, president of SMART-TD.
Railroads have also been under pressure over the past year to improve their service because they were struggling to handle all the shipments companies want them to deliver. And the industry has been defending its safety record after eliminating nearly one-third of all railroad jobs over the past six years as railroads overhauled their operations. Unions say all those cuts have left workers spread too thin and made it more difficult to keep up with all the inspections and maintenance that are needed.
The railroads maintain that they remain the safest way to transport hazardous chemicals and all kinds of other cargo across land because nearly every shipment arrives intact, but the East Palestine derailment reinforced just how devastating even one derailment involving dangerous chemicals can be.
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