News & Reviews News Wire Union Pacific, rail labor remain in mediation over ground-based conductor test program (updated)

Union Pacific, rail labor remain in mediation over ground-based conductor test program (updated)

By Bill Stephens | January 20, 2023

UP had sought to begin pilot program on Nebraska coal-hauling route

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Two crew members stand next to their train as another train passes
Two Union Pacific crew members provide a roll-by inspection for an intermodal train near Wamsutter, Wyo., on Sept. 1, 2022. Trains: David Lassen

The union representing conductors has thus far refused to participate in a pilot program Union Pacific wants to run to test the concept of shifting conductors to ground-based positions, The Associated Press reports.

But UP remains in mediation with two SMART-TD committees and negotiations are ongoing about the proposed pilot program, railroad spokeswoman Robynn Tysver tells Trains News Wire. “We cannot move forward without it being agreed upon through collective bargaining,” she notes.

UP believes that ground-based conductors – which the railroad dubs expediters – would be able to more safely and more efficiently play the role conductors do today from the locomotive cab, Rod Doerr, UP’s vice president of crew management services and interline operations, said last month at a Federal Railroad Administration hearing on one-person crews.

Positive train control has significantly reduced the conductor’s tasks out on the main line, UP says, and an expediter would be better able to handle troubleshooting and fixing mechanical problems en route.

“This job will be much better served by a truck-based approach, responding to planned or unplanned events dispatched from a central location around the railroad network. Union Pacific envisions a role where the expediter receives a call for service from an en route train, drives to that train in a truck, performs the requested service, and drives back to the … base of operations,” Doerr says. “Our data suggests in most cases this will take less time than having the on-board conductor attempt the same tasks.”

But union officials panned the idea at the FRA hearing, saying that having two people in the cab improves safety. They also have said that talk of one-person crews had made it harder for railroads to recruit and hire conductors.

UP wants to first test the expediter concept on the South Morrill Subdivision, its coal-hauling route across western Nebraska that is paralleled by a state highway. Trains would continue to operate with an engineer and conductor during the pilot, and UP would measure the response times of expediters and conductors when a train encountered a problem.

“The proposed pilot enhances quality of life by placing the expeditor in a truck and dispatching them from a centralized home base to planned or unplanned events. They will be less likely to suffer the effects of fatigue and replace the unknown conductors currently experience with a regular shift, a regular schedule, and the ability to sleep in their own bed each night,” Tysver says.

BNSF Railway and Norfolk Southern last month said they also were negotiating with unions about the possibility of pilot programs involving ground-based conductors. Spokesmen for BNSF and NS said today that negotiations with their unions are ongoing.

CSX Transportation and Canadian Pacific say they currently have no interest in ground-based conductors. Canadian National has declined to comment on the issue.

The SMART-TD union did not respond to an email requesting comment.

Note: Updated at 9:34 a.m. Central Time with comment from Union Pacific, BNSF Railway, and Norfolk Southern.

19 thoughts on “Union Pacific, rail labor remain in mediation over ground-based conductor test program (updated)

  1. Even on our upstate New York double track “water level” route, where an access road along the track exists, any need to set out a cripple at one of the few places that remain, it takes four hours or more and well over two hours, in good weather, for a flying squad to arrive. Meanwhile long division crews run out the clock and need recrew, and high priority trains lose hours getting through muti mile single track bottle necks. What works on a short line local, alone on a branch, does not work on the long trains on the main. A lone engineer CANNOT sit still in the seat for 12 hours. A lone engineer cannot copy EC-1’s, errant train consists, flag activation failures ad infinitum. Trains come to a stop, and their solution? Send out a newbie MBA, wet behind the ears MTO who along with the remote dispatchers have not a clue what needs to be done. Multiple grade crossings are blocked by multiple stopped 15,000-foot trains.

  2. With three-mile long trains, neither mode is any good, conductor or expediter.

    In my younger and stupider days, I used to walk along the railroad tracks (unless snow or night). It’s difficult to walk even an eight of a mile on the side slope or in the ditch. A foot or two of snow cover doesn’t make it any easier.

    Whether you’re a conductor or an expediter, try walking the 15,000 feet along the tracks with a flashlight, in snow and at night, looking for the separated air hose or the broken coupler. Then, having found it, fix it.

    In urban or suburban areas, yes, the expediter can get to the problem in a pickup truck faster than the conductor can walk. That assumes, though, that it is known where in the consist the problem. The location doesn’t reveal itself by magic, someone has to walk the distance.

    In a rural area, as has been pointed out in this tread, only the T&E crew might have access.

  3. The Class 1s aren’t out of touch and have a clear understanding of operations in the field. The reality is they just don’t care and if a train sits waiting for a roving conductor that’s fine. They’ve demonstrated time after time and year after year that their focus is on operating ratio and not service. Class1s are in a unique position where their customers have little options and they capitalize on it. When things do get critical, congressional hearings involve a slap on the wrist and the ceos don’t even bother to attend because what’s the point? I’m not sure how this all ends but I can assure you it won’t be good and it will be employees, customers, and consumers that will suffer and not the executives.

  4. An idea designed by someone that lives in the city and is used to calling an Uber to get where they want to go. Everything is assumed to function great with a road nearby. So what happens in this supposed perfect area when the person in the truck is already on a call in the opposite direction.

  5. Just a small observation for all those who feel the railroad management is just out to get them. Think of the trucks currently running in the Southwest without a driver on board. Then think railroad track all controlled miles away in an operations room. Now how hard is it to understand a somewhat shorter train ,say 100 cars, being operated via camera and computer with a desk bound engineer ?

  6. OK so call it what it is. They just want to get rid of the conductor and just assign a mechanic to a territory and he will respond as needed. The engineer will just have to set in the unit until everything is fixed. Will the mechanic transport a new engineer to the train if he dies on hours of service. More savings as they can get rid of the contractor who hauls crews.

  7. First of all I would like an explanation of how exactly PTC has eliminated the work of a conductor? The engineer more than ever is being held captive by technology and cannot focus as much on what’s going on outside the cab.
    Clayton Johanson. Many conductors are now trained engineers who don’t have seniority to hold a regular engineers position. And what happens if the engineer becomes incapacitated and needs immediate first aid. Or a trespasser or vehicle strike where one has to go back? That immediate response the conductor can relay to the engineer who has the much bigger radio and becomes a de-facto command center while the conductor is on the ground physically taking care of business.
    The much better idea is to have mobile carmen throughout the system who can respond. My experience was passing a train at restricted speed in emergency. I found a separation and radioed the engineer of the train a car number. It was 154 cars deep and a carman from a nearby yard heard my transmission and asked for location. So he gets there before the conductor, problem is fixed and he gives a ride back to the head end for the conductor while the air is pumping up.

    1. I agree, James. If you are going too have “expediters” ( a term which I am sure the union sees as an attempt to downgrade conductors in status AND PAY) everywhere to beat a conductor to the spot on long trains then you are going to have to have twice as many expediters because a lot of UP trains run in the middle of nowhere… Will you be teaching them to fly small helicopters as well or give them 4-wheel side X sides to go through any terrain or weather they might encounter? The “roads(?) next to the tracks are definitely NOT all weather except where the main parallels an improved road of some type. As long as roads, people or animals can cross the tracks, two people need to be in the cab. If the CEO’s of the C1’s really believed that, they would not even consider this idea. This isn’t Australia…

      An old friend in Wyoming told me once, “Talk is cheap but it takes money to buy Whiskey!” Management’s actions, despite their talk, has preceded any actions they want to take because no one, not even most the stockholders believe anything they say. Eliminate the customer/Shipper valid complaints and listen too your most valuable resource – your employees – for a couple of years and maybe you will be believed. But right now, no one can hear you because your actions speak louder than your words!

  8. One Conductor and One Engineer per train, I can not imagine one conductor going to set in a cubicle at somewhere and watch a train or trains and then if something goes wrong is going hop up and for that one train to run out there and fix the problem, unreal that the railroad really think this is going to be safe, Now days the trains are 8000 ft plus, unreal.
    Its all about the money for the stock holders not about the safety to the crew or the public, so sad.
    No one should be on company property away from home terminal by themselves! Not Safe.

  9. if this doesn’t show the extent of Wall Street’s greed, then as a retired conductor, they will never squeeze more profit from moving bulk freight by train using this concept. There are so many locations that are not accessible by a “highway conductor”. If the railroads want to invest in having an access road run the entire length of their rails, then they are not capable of understanding true railroading. Swamps, bridges with narrow walkways, in mountainous or hilly terrain, and many more realities of the road make this concept an office idea…lol
    Get real, management! Work as a conductor out on the road for a while and you will realize how stupid this desire is.
    Greed, Greed and more Greed!

  10. Get a sick engineer and see what good a fella in a truck is. No union can risk backing up the roving repairman. The union members would kick out every union officer.

    1. A conductor can’t take over running a train today with a sick engineer. So the fella in the cab is also no good.

    2. Maybe a conductor can’t take over for a sick engineer, but he certainly can help. I wouldn’t want to be running and getting sicker each hour without someone there to help keep me focused.

    3. Mr.Johansson, today many, if not most, Conductors are qualified Engineers and can take over running the locomotive in emergencies.

  11. The “Expediter” concept model, envisioned by management who have no idea what actually is needed when problems occur, can only work when there is a single problem with a single train that is repairable by that employee.

    I can see a situation where there is an Activation Failure at a highway crossing, requiring a flagman, and a train 25 miles (or more) away that is stopped by a DD. Now, you’ve encountered a situation where enormous delays will occur that would not have happened if there was an on-board conductor.

    However, it is a good idea to have mobile carmen whose trucks would have tools and equipment not normally available on a locomotive to take care of those gnarly problems that crop up… like the time a car near the rear of my train had a broken brake pipe hanger that resulted in the pipe hanging low enough to get caught on a highway crossing timber which ripped out 15 feet of pipe.

  12. Unless Scotty is there to beam them to THAT LOCATION how in gods name can someone do the repair quicker than if they were on the train IN THE CAB. What planet is this guy on?

    1. The theory is you can drive to the train faster than you can walk back from the cab along a 15000 ft freight, which they have allegedly timed to take up to 1 hour in each direction plus whatever time it takes to correct the problem.

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