Single Engineer for Trains a Tough Sell Following Amtrak Crash

The Amtrak crash that killed eight people this month raised questions of the safety of one-engineer trains, thwarting the idea of reducing freight crews for now, Union Pacific Corp. Chief Executive Officer Lance Fritz said.

While cargo operators would save money with a single person in the cab instead of two people, that argument will be a tough sell to railroad workers and union leaders after the May 12 accident in Philadelphia, Fritz said. Amtrak trains in the Northeast Corridor have used solo engineers since 1983, according to a union statement.

“It makes the conversation more difficult today,” Fritz said in an interview at Bloomberg’s headquarters in New York Wednesday. “That’s because it becomes a more emotional conversation as opposed to a conversation grounded in fact and the capability of technology.”

Last year, union members voted down a BNSF Railway Co. plan to operate some trains with a single engineer. Union Pacific isn’t looking at one-person crews for now, said Fritz, who became CEO in February.

Rail safety has come under increased scrutiny from Congress and regulators following recent passenger train accidents, including the crash of a New York commuter train in Westchester County in February that killed six people, and several crude oil trains that have derailed and exploded. Earlier this month, the Transportation Department mandated upgraded brakes and sturdier tank cars for crude trains.

Two-Person Crews

Two-person crews on Amtrak trains may have prevented those accidents, according to the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

“The uncontrolled external environment in which trains are operated along with regulatory and operational demands of a safe transportation service demand a crew of at least two fully trained and qualified employees in the control cab of every train,” the union said in a May 19 statement.

Government mandates for technology to improve safety, including last month’s ruling for electronically controlled pneumatic brakes on crude trains and the 2008 law for positive train control, are costly and not effective, Fritz said.

Union Pacific, based in Omaha, Nebraska, will end up spending $2.5 billion for positive train control, which is designed to stop or slow a train if it’s speeding or another train is in the way. The money could be better spent on building overpasses for roads that cross tracks, the 52-year-old CEO said.

$4 Billion Cost

The electronic brakes will cost the industry as much as $4 billion to install and only saves “fractions of a second” in stopping trains that can take a mile to halt, he said.

“It makes no sense from a risk reduction” standpoint, he said.

Railroads are looking at a possible legal challenge to the electronic brakes mandate or an agreement to roll back the ruling in an administrative procedure, Fritz said.

Still, Union Pacific is dedicated to reducing derailments, Fritz said, and the company is “going after the big causes aggressively.”

Union Pacific has installed cameras in the cabs of about 1,000 locomotives and is testing light radar to examine for underground water collection that weakens tracks. It’s also employing in rail in sections that are six times as long to reduce the number of welds, which are the weak point in track.

Reducing the number of crewmembers cuts costs and gives railroads more flexibility on deploying locomotives. Last year, rail companies struggled to hire and train enough crew members to meet demand for locomotives to help ease rail traffic congestion.

Technology in the future would allow for reducing crew sizes and even make possible driverless trains, Fritz said. That would help reduce human factors that are a “pretty significant cause” for train accidents, he said.

“If you look through the distant past — and we have a 153 years of history — technology has found a way to be a safer more reliable, more efficient enabler of getting work done,” Fritz said.