News & Reviews News Wire Class I railroads split on taking conductors out of the locomotive cab

Class I railroads split on taking conductors out of the locomotive cab

By Bill Stephens | December 16, 2022

BNSF Railway, Norfolk Southern, and Union Pacific back the fundamental change in operations

Email Newsletter

Get the newest photos, videos, stories, and more from brands. Sign-up for email today!

Intermodal train passes between two stopped trains
Intermodal train passes between two stopped trains
A BNSF Railway conductor inspects a passing westbound intermodal train at Goffs, Calif. Chase Gunnoe

The big six Class I railroads are not of one mind regarding taking conductors out of the locomotive cab and redeploying them to pickup trucks.

Union Pacific and Norfolk Southern told the Federal Railroad Administration this week that they are negotiating with unions about testing the concept, which would involve having conductors assist trains in specific territories.

BNSF Railway tells Trains News Wire that it, too, is on board. “BNSF has been in negotiations with SMART-TD for some time now on a workable transition to ground-based conductors, and could initially include pilot locations,” railroad spokesman Zak Andersen says. “We remain optimistic that we can reach a progressive agreement that creates a better work-life balance for our employees through predictable schedules, enhances service to our customers, and sets BNSF up for future success.”

In 2014 BNSF became the first railroad to propose engineer-only operations on lines protected by positive train control. It reached a tentative agreement with the SMART-TD union covering BNSF routes in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest that would have created a ground-based master conductor position. But the rank and file rejected the deal.

CSX Transportation is not considering using ground-based conductors and is not talking to rail labor about the concept, a spokeswoman says.

Canadian National declined to comment when contacted regarding its interest in ground-based conductor positions.

Canadian Pacific declined to add to comments CEO Keith Creel made during the railway’s earnings call in July.

Creel seemed skeptical of one-person operation anytime soon, given how frequently trains encounter problems on the main line. Until pull-aparts and other mechanical issues become exceptionally rare, Creel says one-person operation doesn’t make much sense.

“When you put a train together there’s a lot of moving parts. And those moving parts historically have created some challenges. So If a train separates and it’s 10,000-foot long and you don’t have a man or a woman to assist the engineer, that can get complicated,” Creel told investors and analysts. “That’s something I’m very sensitive to.”

Once technology and components allow safe, efficient, and reliable service, railroads should be allowed to operate trains with one person in the cab, Creel said.

Any shift to engineer-only operations in the U.S. would require two things: Approval from the FRA and labor unions. Both are obstacles for the Class I’s considering a fundamental change to the way they operate.

The FRA is considering a rule that would mandate that railroads operate with two people in the locomotive cab. The regulation would allow railroads to apply for exceptions, but the Association of American Railroads say the hurdle is set impossibly high and would effectively bar taking the conductor out of the cab.

If the rule ultimately is adopted, it’s likely that the railroad industry would mount a legal challenge.

Leaders of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the SMART-TD union that represents conductors oppose taking conductors out of the cab. They argue that it’s not safe despite the positive train control system that’s designed to prevent collisions and overspeed accidents.

The railroads advocating for ground-based conductors say the move would improve safety and service. They also say that ground-based conductors would have better quality of life because they would work set shifts with scheduled days off and be able to return home every day. And that, they say, would make it easier to recruit and retain conductors.

— Updated at 7:25 a.m. CST with CN declining to comment and at 8:33 a.m. with CP declining to expand on CEO’s comments from July earnings call.

23 thoughts on “Class I railroads split on taking conductors out of the locomotive cab

  1. What happens when an Engineer has to go? Does he or she stop on the main line, or carry a 5 gallon bucket and a plastic bag with them. This would be great subject matter for the in the cab camera. After all they can not take a sick day before they get on the train for fear of being fired.

  2. FYI, there has already been at least one head-on collision under PTC operation. On BNSF a local was doing switching and PTC has trouble handling trains which constantly reverse directions; such trains are handled by being “wired-around” and are run under a “train-order”-like procedure. If someone forgets or isn’t careful–wham! Cayce SC happened when the regular old signals were down for installation of PTC, so PTC was only indirectly the cause of that collision so maybe Cayce doesn’t count. My concerns about PTC included that it might lead to a lack of vigilance by crews through overtrusting of a computer program.
    I could see one-man engine crews in yard switching. Problem is we remember the damage done by five-man “Full Crew” laws in New York State until 1989. Train offs and an occasional dead “swing” brakeman on the New Haven a small price to pay for extra employment.

  3. Railroad management appears to have too much faith in the concept of flawless working order in (a) hardware with moving parts under the stress of train movement and (b) software developed by programmers managed by people who don’t understand software and who operate under budget constraints over all.

    Hardware and software break, railroad management, and at the absolute worst times. That’s the track record of life it’s own self and you cannot wish it away.

  4. It all boils down to more corporate greed!! The railroads know they are in big trouble from all of their slashing jobs. It was once a desirable job but times have changed and even with huge incentives they cannot hire or retain people.

    1. Sorry. Pension Fund greed. Wall St wants dividends and commissions. Pension Funds want stock-buybacks which means their holdings get sold/bought in by the companies maybe without brokerage commissions. Pension Funds have the proxy votes. Anyone know the details on how buybacks get done? I see them as draining the companies dry through insider dealings by management; buybacks are essentially insider trading and should be outlawed!

  5. Two person crews should be mandated on all freight trains. Too much risk and danger if one or the other person gets sick, has a heart attack, or some other medical emergency plus the danger of nodding off to sleep or dozing while operating a 100 to 150 car freight train especially if it is a train loaded with hazardous materials or toxic liquids or chemicals. How many times have we seen these disasters happen on the highways when an overworked, exhausted truck driver driving a big tractor trailer with no one else in the cab either falls asleep at the wheel or passes out and crashes into other trafficor flips over creating a dangerous and toxic spill of chemicals and fire. Is cost saving and the urge to make big money for the Wall Street capos and their minions so important over putting millions of lives at risk? If this idea of one person crews operating long and heavy freight trains becomes the norm and the next major disaster happens with loss of life and property, both the railroads and Wall Street will have blood on their hands and those greedy and selfish investors and stockholders will have blood money to put in their coffers. In today’s money driven society and business world only money and greed counts, human life doesn’t matter any more
    Joseph C. Markfelder

  6. This just in…When the engineer only test period comes to Donner Pass, roving conductors during the summer will be supplied with pack mules or Belgian Draft horses capable of carrying knuckles. During winter operations, the roving conductors will use sled dog teams to reach a disabled train.
    All kidding aside, I am going to avoid the Lac Megantic references, the never believable Hollywood railroad movie references, the “Australia runs one man ore trains” and Europe has one man trains analogies, and look at this from another angle which the railroads have not mentioned (probably for fear that if they do they will have even more trouble hiring).
    Like Eric, I do this for a living, and have been running trains for coming up on 29 years now. The industry is saying they need one man crews to stay competitive with trucks. Lets be honest. Will one man crews make the trains faster and allow the customers to get their goods sooner? Probably not. When the industry talks about one man crews in order to compete with trucks, they are looking to decrease costs. And what is one way to do that? Get rid of more of your workforce, and whitewash it with “Look, if we go to roving conductors they will have predictable hours. How cool is that?” One exec even mentioned that regular hours will help attract and retain new hires, while at the same time stating that a roving conductor will be able to monitor multiple trains. Well, I know I am just a peon engineer, but it would stand to reason if you have one man watching several trains during a shift, you simply wont need as many conductors now, will you? As a matter of fact it will more than likely reduce the ranks over time. But that is not something the industry execs want to mention when they are short handed right now and trying to hire everyone they can to get out of a predominantly self inflicted jam.
    As for the quality of life issues, what happens to the engineer now? He is still on call 24/7/365. Where are his 2nd set of eyes when he/she is in the cab now? The railroad says “PTC has taken over many of the duties for the conductor.” Oh Really. What happens when the PTC craps out? And yes, it does crap out. Where are the 2nd set of eyes then? GCOR 1.47 will have to be rewritten to have all of the responsibility put on the engineer. When in a cab red zone, the conductor would be the one handling the radio communications in order to allow the engineer to focus on running the train. If the conductor is gone, will the PTC call out on and answer the radio for me? And for those of you who say passenger trains run with only one person in the cab, you forget to mention that the trainmen are just a few car lengths back in the train, with radios, to communicate with the engineer.
    As for roving conductors being able to get to a defect sooner? Im not buying into that either. Unless you have every inch of mainline paralleled by an access road, there will be many times where even the roving conductor will still have to walk. Hot wheel? Bearing? “Just stop, and we will send someone out to you as soon as we can” versus, as Eric has stated, dropping the conductor off and pulling the defect up to them with the train. When I was working the ground and the air went, I always grabbed a wrench and a hose just in case. And if it was knuckle, you threw one off and pulled the train up to it, then shoved back.
    Personally, I believe the whole one man crew issue is just another way to cut costs. Cutting the caboose didnt make the service any better. Cutting off the brakemen didnt make the service any better. All any of these moves did was reduce the cost of operating the railroad.

  7. Mr Landey, my thoughts are a Bhopal, India, after an accident like Graniteville, SC.
    Murphy’s Law applies to everything that moves. But have faith, and pray for nothing bad. . . . . .

    1. From all the operations around the world that operate safely with only one crew member in the cab…the answer would be no.

    2. If you have traveled to foreign countries, yes there are many one man crews. Alas, the trains are very short and move short distances between cities on precise schedules in precise slots. There are also a massive number of employs all along routes to step up when there are issues

    3. West of Fonda NY on the NYC&HR ca. 2013: For the Record, you COULD have a two-man crew dozing off in the cab of a moving train! NY Route 5 is only a few feet from the tracks–you can still spot some wreckage as of a few years ago.

  8. Something happens to an engineer and a 15,000 ft runaway train is rolling down the track. Seems to me there was a movie somewhat like that.

    1. Yeah, It was called “Unstoppable” but in the end and in real life it was stoppable wasn’t it! That is the whole purpose of PTC but I get your point.

      Of course they could always put rear facing cameras in the cab to monitor the Engineer. But I doubt the BLET would accept. They don’t give a crap if this would make it easier to hire and retain conductors. They just don’t want anybody looking at them while they are running the train.

      Why can’t we all just get along and do what is best for everyone.

  9. There will be an accident somewhere with a liability payment of $500m+ because a jury will blame the lack of a conductor. Probably not lack but no matter if that was a cause or not.

    1. Ever notice the large number of plastic bottles on interstate highways with a yellow to brown colored liquid inside? Frequently these bottles get filled while driving.

  10. If they’re not all on board then it’s obvious what’s going on here. If it has to be done as the ones that want it to stay competitive in the world market then why not the others that aren’t going for it? Seems to reason that it would have to be a come one come all proposition in order to supposedly preserve an industry. So at the end of the day the actual argument should really be we need this to preserve or grow our income levels at the expense of anyone else including the general public. By the way their argument that truckers are going to murder them in the future was proven a sham when the unions were threatening to strike. The truckers even know that they can’t absorb all the traffic the railroads have and made that clear in statements to the press.

    1. Yes, while drivers are still needed to drive those trucks they can’t take all the traffic away from the railroads that could move by truck, but once autonomous trucks are on the road(and they are/will be on the road). Then the only thing stopping the OTR guys is buying enough autonomous trucks to haul the traffic.

  11. ‘Tickets please! Tickets please!’

    Obviously passenger trains are not included in the proposal. Conductors still serve passengers directly on board. Ground-based conductors would not align with the logistics of passenger train operations.

  12. Conductors belong on the train! One person operation will lead to problems. As far as I’m concerned, end of conversation.

    1. Imagine a four-locomotive lash-up. Count the number of diesel engines, compressors, computers, radios, inverters, etc. etc. etc. etc., and tell me who in their right mind would demand that to a one-person crew be responsible for all that. Who BTW also has to drive the train, throw switches, call out signals, communicate with DS, clear snow from the windshield and headlights. and so forth. As far as I’m concerned, end of conversation.

      Oh and let me drop in a little side note. LAC MEGANTIC, QUEBEC. As in, one of the worst disasters since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

      But I’m quite confident that Corporate Risk Management has run the numbers. Sure they have.

You must login to submit a comment