News & Reviews News Wire Union Pacific details plans to test feasibility of ground-based conductors

Union Pacific details plans to test feasibility of ground-based conductors

By Bill Stephens | December 14, 2022

‘Expediters’ would be able to respond to problems faster and more safely than conductors based in locomotive cabs, railroad tells Federal Railroad Administration hearing

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A Union Pacific coal train grinds its way up Logan Hill in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming in October 2020. Bill Stephens

WASHINGTON — Union Pacific is ready to launch pilot programs that will test the feasibility of redeploying conductors from locomotive cabs to ground-based positions, the railroad told the Federal Railroad Administration today during a hearing on the agency’s proposed two-person crew rule.

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, told the FRA.

Positive train control has significantly reduced the conductor’s tasks out on the main line, Doerr 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.”

The railroad is currently negotiating with labor unions regarding a pilot program that would be run in four phases, starting in Nebraska before being expanded to UP routes in Colorado, the Pacific Northwest, and Kansas.

The tests, all in territory protected by positive train control, will compare the response times of conductors and expediters. Each phase of the pilot program will increase operational complexity, Doerr says.

The first phase will begin on the South Morrill Subdivision, UP’s coal-hauling route across western Nebraska that is paralleled by a state highway. The double-track line carries an average of 26 trains per day, according to a recent regulatory filing regarding the railroad’s Powder River Basin coal volume.

The second phase would run on UP’s single-track Greeley Subdivision, which links Denver and Speer Junction, Wyo. The line handles locals, unit trains, and intermodal trains, some of which have work events en route.

The third phase would involve the Portland, La Grande, Huntington, and Nampa subdivisions between Portland, Ore., and Pocatello, Idaho. The main line features heavy grades, limited road access, and challenging weather, Doerr says. The expediters may use different equipment to access hard to reach locations, he says.

The final phase would cover the Harrington and Topeka subdivisions in Kansas, a route that includes the refueling of intermodal and manifest trains.

The goal of all four phases will be to determine the efficiency, safety, and worker quality of life for conductors and expediters, Doerr says.

UP believes expediters can respond more quickly and more safely to en route mechanical problems, such as a broken knuckle, because conductors won’t have to walk long distances over uneven ground from the cab to the problem freight car, Doerr says.

Expediters will have better tools and equipment in their trucks, which the railroad says is safer than having a conductor climb down from a locomotive while carrying gear and parts.

And with expediters working from set locations on scheduled shifts, they’ll be able to sleep at home and know when their days off will be, which Doerr says will improve their quality of life while enabling UP to more easily recruit and retain workers. The unpredictable and unscheduled nature of conductor positions has made it challenging for railroads to hire new conductors.

Expediters would be assigned territories, and busy main lines would require multiple expediters to be on duty simultaneously in the same territory, Doerr says.

UP showed a seven-minute video illustrating how conductors and expediters would respond to a broken knuckle on a coal train in Nebraska. The expediter was able to make repairs 1 hour and 10 minutes faster than the conductor, largely because he didn’t have to make the 45-minute round trip from the head end to the problem car.

Ultimately, it wouldn’t make sense to use both conductors and expediters in the same territories, Doerr says. But UP wouldn’t be able to shift to ground-based conductors if the FRA implements the proposed two-person crew rule.

Norfolk Southern also is negotiating with labor unions about the use of ground-based conductors.

The railroad aims to improve local service by having ground-based conductors arrive at a customer facility to line switches and perform other tasks before the train arrives, Tom Schnautz, NS’s vice president of advanced train control, said at the hearing.

Union officials told the FRA that having two people in the locomotive cab improves safety.

— Updated at 9 a.m. Central to provide new link to Union Pacific video shown during FRA hearing.

27 thoughts on “Union Pacific details plans to test feasibility of ground-based conductors

  1. One more thing: as words like switchman, foreman, brakeman & conductor get blurred into “expediter,” so do the jobs they describe. That means that suddenly you’re without a union contract. Do you see any contracts that say “expediter” in them? They have basically transferred you from your job and into another job. Your union can’t help you now until they figure out how even to define this new job, much less what kind of contract is favorable to such jobs.

    This “expediter” junk is not train service. It changes you from conductor to traveling carman. Repairman. PTC=portable trucker-carman. 😸

    Look, what the railroad wants is a giant conveyor belt. Bit by bit they are eliminating people from this business. Don’t fall for the crap that these former conductors will sleep in their own beds every night. Most of them will still be stuck in hotels far from home, but they drove a truck to it and will drive a truck home. The traffic jams that result from this kind of “service” will further diminish PTC into the realm of failed big ideas. But my guess is that in 10 years there will be no people on freight trains. The RR will get their conveyor belt, and the workers will get laid off for good.

    Find other employment if you can. Union Pacific is screwing up the entire word “railroad.” Others are watching, and will probably make the jump soon. Our brothers from the past would be shaking their fists right about now, getting their posters ready for the strike.

  2. Expediters? More like truck drivers, because they’re going to be spending most of their time in transit on highways. If I signed up for the railroad, and they put me in a truck, I’d quit and go work for another railroad. UP has lost their collective mind.

  3. Seems like this would hurt conductors from becoming engineers. They normally learn the engineer craft from watching the engineer.

  4. Looks good on paper? The train is the conductors responsibility with the engineer. Again looks good on paper, there are some places on the railroad property you can not physically drive to or climb to. So your telling me that a conductor is going to drive to a train that is mechanically broken and will not move, to fix and to carry whatever needs to fix the problem? I know, if a conductor fines out he or she can not drive to or climb to, I’m sure the car department will be more than happy to come out, now that they are not as busy with less workers to perform their normal duties.
    Also bye now trains are stacking up, while a conductor is waiting for the car department to drive from wherever and then to find out they to can not get to the problem bye truck or can not carry that knuckle or tools either, maybe then maintenance of way can be called to help, makes sense to me.
    In the railroad business, there is no reason for anyone to be by themselves away from home terminal properties, period. I just wonder at times if some of these higher managers even been out in the field, I mean really been out in the field, like far or near away from their home terminals? There is a lot to be looking out for that can really be deadly, other trains for one, if not knowing what to look for when your walking out in the field, (IE- walking down the dump, up the dump, over the rails , unknown critters and so on) in the dead of night or day. The railroad again have lost some really great experience railroaders to this so call PTC. I can not imagine pulling a 10,000 plus ft train bye yourself in a cab with no help other than a radio and a computer, WOW! Just saying.
    Union Pacific needs to stay with two crew members in the cab and pull shorter trains and serve any customer big or small and do what customers need, moving fright. Quit cherry picking customers, and get these so call upper managers out in the real world to see what really goes on to run a great railroad, Union Pacific!

  5. The video presentation of the ground-based (utility) conductor assumes he is just twiddling his thumbs waiting for a call to come in – when in fact, he most-likely would be assisting a whole other train at the time the call came in to assist the train shown in need. While the cab-based conductor on board the train may have taken more time than the corporate RR would have liked, he was present and working. No delays. He went right to work to fix the situation. A ton of assumptions are interwoven in the UP video. In the real world, I remembering a ‘utility’ ground-based conductor working out of Laramie (additive personnel) . . . his assistance to me (cab-based freight conductor) was invaluable at least three times.

  6. As always, easy to see the savings – hard to see the costs.

    DPU brought us longer trains with more locomotives. Great! More cars and locomotives per train means greater chance each train will have a line-of-road equipment failure.

    Every reduced speed portion of the railroad is takes longer to get through.

    Every line of road failure takes longer to deal with.

    Railroads are just waving their hands at these factors and are puzzled why train speed is down from 10 – 20 years ago.

    One man crews because we have PTC now? We’ll just drive up to the problem areas? Exactly how fast do you think a conductor in a truck is going be able to drive on a RR access road? …and he has to get close on a highway, first. Or are they going to hi-rail into the stopped train?

    This is a great idea…if and only if… the RR is ready for it.


    1. More reliable freight cars/braking. How about a wireless, second generation ECP system? Wired ECP has been “in test” for 30 years now…and nothing.

    2. Improve right of way for quick access to trains no matter where they are.

    Do these and THEN go to one man in cab.

  7. OK, if these are truck based crew does the hours of service for railroader or truckers (10 hours) apply? Concurrently?

    The conductor following the local in a vehicle is a little more interesting. Some short lines are doing that already.

    If there is one person in the cab, then:
    (1) there should be automatic calling of 911 or some medical (helicopter based?) rescue if the alerter stops the train and isn’t responded to. Let the dispatcher try to make contact and call them off if necessary.
    (2) hours of service for engineers needs to look more like the European model as recently outlined in railway age with breaks and much shorter days.

  8. The train has suddenly been brought to a halt by an unexpected emergency brake application. Does the engineer stay with the lead engine until the expediter drives up to discover what caused the emergency application? That could easily be an hour or more, not good if there is a derailment with leakage of hazardous commodities.

  9. Surprised they aren’t also investigating ground-based engineers, they could control the trains remotely just like Train-Simulator Pro. Think all the $$$ they could same and all the personnel they could cut. Instead of spending $$$ training people how to operate the physical demands of an engine and requiring the fitness to walk 3-mile trains, they just hire some kids with a game consul. Wall Street will be salivating at all the money this could save them. (sarcasm is sarcastic of course)

  10. So let me guess, the tests will be done in the Spring and Summer with Fall being negotiating time. Launch this in Winter and watch the failures with UP blaming the crews and “expediters” instead of their short sightedness. Wall Street makes a quick buck and other companies follow too quickly and the whole thing ends up in hearings for two years. They’ll scratch their heads still wondering why they can’t retain employees and not enough applying and so on and so on……

    1. Yeah, put one with the mid train DPU’s. The cost of hauling a slimmed down caboose has to be cheaper than what the railroads are proposing and let a “grunt” expediter, paid less than a conductor, change trains at the normal crew change locations. Everybody wins.

  11. So maybe this might work when a state highway parallels the tracks, but what about rural areas that have no direct route to the problem? And how much territory will they have to cover? If it takes you an hour to get there,20 minutes to repair, then where do you go? Back to your base? Then you get another call 2 hours away. While you are there another train needs you 1 hour away. A lot of miles on a truck, fuel, etc. Meanwhile, hours rack up on time on duty for the engineer. And what if you have been on duty 12 hours and still need to drive back to you base? And the 2 hours home! Another pie in the sky dream. You can only cut costs to be profitable so much. You need to increase revenue but not by raising rates

  12. Most railroad right of ways are barely walkable let alone driveable. Conrail used to send out block truck if you needed help. To me this is cutting the conductors for mechanical personnel.

  13. Let’s for a minute leave out the question of safety…especially since it’s been proven in plenty of service around the world to be perfectly safe with only one person or no people in the cab(yes, I’m counting the Australian Iron Ore roads as railroads, doesn’t matter if they’re in remote regions or not). I would question the health of today’s railroaders though, especially in the U.S. as the vast majority of the workforce(for all industries) is not the healthiest in the world. You’re more likely to have a health emergency before some other type of emergency that would benefit from two people in the cab.

    1. Your own health and wellness is only up to the individual and although many I work with are as healthy as anyone else in any other industry( some way more) the railroad refuses to acknowledge that employee health is an asset and working people to the brink is bad news for their bottom line. Keep in mind engineers aren’t going anywhere anytime soon even if they got rid of conductors and those engineers need to be healthy just the same yet the railroads seem to do the opposite to try to encourage a healthy workforce. Pamphlets or computer based modules are their solution to encourage a healthy workforce but time to unwind and recoup from being turned and burned are definitely not being addressed( although it seems there are at least headlines popping up to that effect) we will see in the near term if it’s all lip service to appease the court of public opinion and it’s short term memory.

  14. And if the engineer suffers a heart attack or other serious medical problem what then? A medivac chopper to the rescue? This idea is pure BS IMHO.

    1. About 10 years ago my engineer had a heart attack on me and I’m not tooting my own horn here but if I wasn’t there he’d certainly be dead, I had him off the engine family and railroad management informed of the situation within I’d say 10 minutes. Thankfully because he flatlined at the hospital right after he got there.He’s a good friend of mine and a good engineer, he’s since had to quit because of his heart but he’s alive today and healthy and able to talk about it.

  15. What about bad weather? If the roads are not cleared from snow or jammed with traffic? Snow removal and road plowing are almost non existent in the lowlands of the Pacific Northwest.

    1. Probably have snowmobiles or tracked “weasles” along with the helicopters and hot air balloons or ultralight aircraft…. wait this sounds kind of fun.

  16. “Our data suggests” – corporate weasel words. This isn’t a conductor on the ground, this is someone in a truck probably an hour’s drive from the train, at least, and the assumption is that there would be some method to access a disabled train other than via a dog sled. This is a one-person crew program under another misleading name. There is no way in Hell that taking a pair of eyes, hands, and feet out of the cab of today’s 10000’+ road freights will be anything other than a safety hazard, and result in even more delays and (if it’s possible) even worse customer service.
    The article does not address the following questions:
    1. Would redesignation from the conductor craft to the expediter craft mean a cut in salary and benefits?
    2. Would an expediter on standby at a terminal be paid a full day’s wage even if he doesn’t get called out?
    3. Would expediters still be subject to the hours-of-service laws?
    4. How would the proper number of expediters at a given terminal be determined?
    5. Would the railroads have complete autonomy to alter and/or eliminate expediter positions as they try to squeeze costs down even further?

    This is just another sleazy way, IMHO, for the clowns who are running the once-mighty UP into the ground to put money in the hands of their Wall Street masters and line their own pockets with undeserved bonuses.
    The FRA needs to step in and get the rule passed ASAP.

  17. Yeah ok. I’m sure their tests were performed with the utmost integrity with no bias or help. I can change a knuckle on a train in 20 minutes from the cab no matter where it is or where the train is. I’ve done it a million times over my career. I call bs on all the railroads tests or analysis as it’s all subjective and biased.

    1. Not questioning you, but I’m questioning you on being able to walk from the cab to lets just say car number 186, change the knuckle and all the way back to the cab in 20 minutes total? That’s what you’re saying and I know it takes at least 20 minutes for the average person to walk just a mile.

    2. Easy you drop a knuckle off the engine, walk back to the break, turn the angle cock recharge the air and have the engineer pull you up to the knuckle you dropped off. Bingo 20 minutes easy, there are many tricks to the trade. It might take a little more to get back to the train but to get to the knuckle to replace it 20 minutes easy.On my territory we already have rapid responders and whenever I have a problem with my train I do my best to beat them to the punch and I do nearly every time proving to not only myself but anyone who wants to know that yes they might be an asset that is good to have in place but are they necessary? Not all the time, the times they’re needed the most are for major mechanical breakdowns like engine failures or breaks in equipment that needs say welding….. obviously there’s never been that sort of stuff available to train crews. Engine failures or mechanical problems with engines are by far the vast majority the responders deal with and that won’t be addressed with an engineer only no matter the situation. Very many issues are involved with the everyday operation of a train over the road. I’ve said it a million times if they want their single man crews go for it it’ll be a mess far worse than they have now just exit and see.

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