The Biggest Problem With Forcing Commuter Trains to Use Two-Person Crews

They cost more, and they aren't necessarily any safer.

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Reuters

Last summer, a crude oil train derailed in Quebec, unleashing explosions that killed 47 people and wiped out part of the town Lac-Mégantic. The tragedy evidently occurred after the train's lone engineer improperly applied the brakes, then left the scene. In the wake of the event, the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration began studying the idea of establishing new two-person crew standards, especially for the transport of hazardous material.

So it wasn't a huge surprise when the FRA announced last week that it planned to issue a new rule requiring two engineers on crude oil trains. What caused a bit of a stir among the transit community was a statement that followed (our emphasis): the agency would also be establishing "minimum crew size standards for most main line freight and passenger rail operations." In this case, "passenger rail" refers to commuter or intercity trains, which fall under the FRA's domain.

No further details have been offered on the FRA's brief announcement, and an "intention to issue a proposed rule" is far from a done deal. But requiring a two-engineer crew on commuter or intercity trains could be a game-changer for cities — in a negative way. Many major operators use only one engineer at the moment, and adding a second could increase expenses enough to impact service without any clear safety benefit.

There might even be a safety hazard.

Frank N. Wilner of Railway Age summarized the lack of evidence that two-person crews are safer than lone engineers in December, after the FRA ordered Metro North to run with two-person crews following its crash in New York City. (Wilner rehashed some of these arguments after last week's announcement.) He points to a number of accidents that have occurred with multi-person crews in the past decade or so. Among them:

  • A 2005 accident involving a Norfolk Southern train, owing to inattention by a multi-person crew to make a proper switch. The crash released chlorine gas and resulted in nine deaths, more than 500 injuries, and a local evacuation.
  • A 2008 crash involving a Metrolink commuter train that failed to stop at a red signal despite having two engineers in the cab.
  • A 2011 CSX freight train collision, in which the two-person crew didn't comply with speed limits, resulting in two crew deaths.

More disturbing is the possibility that some of these two-person accidents occurred because there were two crew members. Wilner references a 2010 report from Metrolink stating that a 16-month pilot project to use two-person crews resulted in no safety improvement. That report cited a previous caution from the California Public Utilities Commission that two-person crews could actually "aggravate engineer distraction, and consequently, engineer error."

If the FRA considered this evidence in reaching the recent conclusion on crew size, it made no reference to such prior research in a safety advisory committee presentation from this March. Instead, that presentation only mentions FRA's belief that a second crew member can provide "appropriate checks and balances regarding train operations." Edward R. Hamberger, head of the Association of American Railroads, made a similar gripe about lack of safety data in a statement given to media outlets:

"If a regulation is proposed, then the least that can be expected is that a federal agency should back it up with grounded data that justifies the recommend rule. To date, nothing but rhetoric and empty pronouncements have been offered to validate their claims."

The oddest part of the whole thing is that commuter and intercity passenger trains have already spent billions of dollars in recent years adopting new federally mandated train safety technology, called Positive Train Control. The point of PTC is to reduce the risk of human error among the engineers driving a train. So why simultaneously ask operators to spend more money to increase the number of error-prone humans causing the problems in the first place?

At a time when commuter and intercity passenger rail are doing well, a mandate to increase operational costs could be a big blow to service improvements. Amtrak continues to break ridership records, while several metro area commuter rail operators had excellent years (including Caltrain, Long Island Railroad, and SEPTA). Some transit operators are even expanding off-peak commuter rail service — a notion that would have once been hard to imagine.

So let's hope this brief stir fizzles into a regulatory footnote; the FRA states that "appropriate exceptions" to its crew-size rule will be made. To be sure, it's a strange push toward human reliance at a time when automated trains have become more accepted in other parts of the world (and even the United States). This might all sound like insider babble to some, but the next time your transit fare or train ticket goes up, keep in mind it's moments like this that mattered.

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