Train crew reduction proposal sparks local concerns

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WACO, Texas (KWTX) Railroad companies have been trimming trains crews for decades, but a new proposal would cut the average train crew to one person while increasing the size of trains and raising their speed limits.

A proposal to further reduce the size of crews aboard trains that roll through Central Texas has some local officials worried. (File)

What’s driving the proposed change is this year’s scheduled completion of a $15 billion automatic railroad braking system, which, the industry says, supports the move toward eliminating one of the two crew members in most locomotives.

The cuts would have immediate impacts on both railroad employees and, likely at some point, on the cities and towns where railroads operate.

“The shift away from two-person crews would jeopardize thousands of jobs at the major railroads and continue the decades-long trend of shrinking crews,” The Associated Press reported.

As well, the change could make “trains more accident prone.”

The move toward widespread use of an automatic braking system for railroads would make it unnecessary to have a conductor in the engine of a train, although labor groups say conductors provide a crucial safety backup.

The Texas Department of Transportation’s 2019 Rail Plan speaks to Positive Train Control (PTC) saying it “refers to technologies designed to automatically stop or slow a train before certain accidents can occur.”

“PTC is designed to prevent collisions between trains, derailments caused by excessive speed, trains operating beyond their limits of authority, incursions by trains on tracks under repair, and by trains moving over switches left in the wrong position,” TxDOT’s report points out.

The system in Texas is designed to determine a train’s location and speed, to warn train operators of potential problems, and take action if operators do not respond to a warning.

The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 initially required railroads to place PTC systems in service by Dec. 31, 2015, on all rail main lines over which regularly scheduled commuter or intercity passenger trains operate and on all “Class I railroad main lines with over 5 million gross ton-miles per mile annually over which any amount of toxic/poison-by-inhalation hazardous materials is handled.”

The law was amended later to give U.S. freight railroads until Dec. 31, 2018, to install PTC hardware, and until Dec. 31, 2020 to fully implement PTC on their networks.

It’s the “toxic/poison-by-inhalation hazardous materials” part that has some local officials concerned with the issue.

“I love railroads. I have family members who worked for the railroad,” said McLennan County Justice of the Peace David Pareya of West.

“But there are times in emergencies that our first responders can’t get across the tracks and that affects everybody’s safety.”

West, in northern McLennan County, is split by the Union Pacific rail line and there are a limited number of grade crossings available to emergency vehicles and when one or more of them is blocked, first responders sometimes have to reroute, which costs them response time.

Darryl Barton, police chief in West, echoed the judge’s concerns.\

“My first concern as the chief of police is the safety of our community.

“New technology is always a great thing and progressing forward with new technology is always a great thing,” but “cutting down to one person on board is my concern because what if that one person has a heart attack or a stroke,” Barton said.

“If that one person is not there what will happen.”

James Logan, Jr., who works at the railyard in Hurst, said there even is a move in place to make trains totally autonomous.

“They’d like to have no one on board at all,” he said.

Up until the 1970s a regular freight train crew operating out of the rail yard in Waco included five members, John Linda, a Waco firefighter and well-studied railroad expert, said.

“They’d have the engineer and a fireman and a brakeman in the engine and the conductor and a second brakeman in the caboose,” Linda said.

“Then they did away with the caboose (it was replaced by an electronic device that monitored the condition of the train) and that only left three.”

Sometime later the engine brakeman was eliminated, leaving only the engineer and the conductor.

West, which might not even exist were it not for the railroad, isn’t the only area on which railroads have a huge impact given very large train yards in both Waco and Temple, and one of the largest train yards in the country is in Robertson County near Mumford.

There are thousands of people employed by railroads in Texas, Union Pacific alone reports it employs 17,674 workers at its list of facilities.

Commerce accountable to railroads, though a fraction of that benefited by trucks, resulted in the state collecting $442.4-million in tax revenues in 2018, the newest numbers yet published in the TxDOT report.

In February 2018, UP announced a major renovation project at Brazos Yard in Robertson County near Mumford, one of the largest and busiest train yards in the U.S.

“When completed, Brazos Yard will handle an anticipated 1,300 rail cars,” the TxDOT report said.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Union in Texas got the job of rewiring the project, developing new electrical systems for the project and completing all the underground placement of systems, IBEW office spokesman Craig Miller, an electrician himself, said.

The major project that promised hundreds of new jobs in Robertson County was scaled back about a year ago, our sister station KBTX, in Bryan, reported.

“Union Pacific announced they have reduced the number of contractors working at the new Brazos Yard being built in Mumford,” that initially UP said would generate 500 new jobs.

After the announced scale back, UP wasn't able to offer an updated number of expected jobs but did say the project had been scaled back to just 90 contractors.

“We got down there and got to work and finished about three-fifths of the job, then the company shut it down,” Miller said.

“I never have figured out why they just trashed the project because what they have now is a $300-million parking lot.”