New Technology Threatens Rail Jobs, Public Safety

February 17, 2005: Like many others, the railroad industry has undergone dramatic restructuring over the past few decades. For train and engine crews, perhaps the biggest threat of the new century is the recent advent of remote control operation of trains in the rail yard and more recently, employers’ calls for single-person operation of over-the-road trains.

Remote control operation was implemented on a broad scale on most of the nation’s major railroads in 2002. The employees on the ground, who couple and uncouple the rail cars and perform a host of other tasks, now operate the locomotive as well, by manipulating the buttons and switches on a belt-pack device. But at what cost to safety?

Little Training or Experience
After just 80 hours of training, a novice switchman is operating a locomotive that once took an engineer months to learn to operate properly. In addition that engineer was required to have a federal certification and a complete understanding of the locomotive’s operation. Without the experience of being “in the seat,” there is no way an employee working from the ground can handle a train as efficiently or as safely as a properly trained employee in the locomotive cab. And because these remote-control-operation jobs are often the least coveted by senior workers on the railroad, they often fall to inexperienced switchmen, who are only just learning the ropes. Obviously, employee safety has been greatly compromised by the advent of remote control operation.

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE), now part of the Teamsters and known as the BLET (for engineers and trainmen), historically has represented the vast majority of the nation’s engineers. Meanwhile the United Transportation Union has represented the conductors and other trainmen.

But rather than unite and fight on remote control operation, the two unions are at each other’s throats. Why? Because the looming threat of this new technology means that jobs could be lost in droves. Would these job losses be engineer jobs or conductor jobs?

Engineer Positions Abolished
Rather than take a principled stand and collectively resist, neither union trusts the other. In 2002 the UTU signed an agreement with the railroads that would allow the UTU-represented conductors to be the sole operators of the remotely controlled locomotives. As a result, thousands of engineer positions represented by the BLE were abolished.

Now it appears that the major rail carriers plan to launch an assault designed to eliminate one of the two over-the-road positions from the engine cab. The implementation of new technology over the past 25 years has paved the way for this latest attack.

The need for the utmost solidarity is apparent. If the unions lose another round on this issue, thousands more jobs stand to be eliminated.

The national freight carriers advocate trains run with a single “transportation employee,” who would both run the engine and assume the duties of the conductor.

Presumably, rather than have the conductor handle the ground work, this lone employee would dismount from the locomotive to do so, or would have an all-purpose “utility employee” tend to switches, air hoses, couplers, etc. of multiple road trains.

The lone employee left in the cab would be expected to handle all of the paperwork for the train, keeping track of waybills, orders, hazardous material information, etc—currently duties of the conductor. Alone in the cab, operating in remote conditions, out of contact with other co-workers, the safety of such an employee would be greatly compromised.

No Fightback Strategy on Either Front
The unions, divided as they are, have no strategy to combat remote control. The BLET has attempted a series of largely unsuccessful lawsuits. The union has had some success in its attempt to lobby local governments in some regions to outlaw remote control operation.

There is speculation that some rank-and-file trainmen are working-to-rule with remote control operation, which may have contributed to congestion and delay in some areas.

But no union has called for such action, or for that matter, any other workplace activity. The BLE merger with the IBT appears to have achieved little on the remote-control-operation front.

As for the question of single-employee operation of road trains, the unions are simply taking a wait-and-see approach. No alarm bell has been sounded, no strategy articulated, no member asked to take part in any campaign. Without cross-craft solidarity and united action by the UTU and BLET, the carriers will stand to win another round.

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