Kansas eyes regulations governing train crew size

A photograph of a Union Pacific train on a train track.

The Kansas Department of Transportation is proposing to require trains to have at least two crew members in the control compartment of the train’s lead locomotive unit.

The proposed regulation, which would apply to trains operating within state borders, would promote railroad and community safety because two-person crews help to prevent potential accidents or derailments, said a Wednesday press release from the office of Democratic Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly.

“Kansas has faced issues ranging from crew member fatigue to derailments which pose a threat to our safety and security — but by maintaining the current practice of requiring a two-person crew we can ensure the health and safety of Kansas workers,” Kelly said. “This proposed regulation is a commonsense, necessary measure to protect our state’s railroad crew members and keep every community along the tracks safe.”

Situations in which the train crew size regulation wouldn’t apply include switching operations, brake testing, safety inspections or when the railroads are performing setouts in conjunction with road service.

The governor’s office didn’t return a request for comment about the timeline for the proposed legislation.

The release noted that nearly all railroads in Kansas already operate two-person crews and that other states that have enacted legislation governing train crew size include Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Nevada, Oregon, West Virginia and Wisconsin. 

Washington state’s law setting a minimum crew size became effective on June 11. 

Meanwhile, four other states — Virginia, Missouri, New York and Wyoming — introduced legislation setting a minimum train crew size earlier this year.

The states’ actions come as the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) last year withdrew a proposed rule on train crew size, saying state laws attempting to mandate a minimum crew size are void.

FRA reasoned that the railroads have maintained a strong safety record in the absence of regulation and that regulating train crew staffing is not necessary or appropriate for rail operations to be conducted safely at this time. The agency also said a crew staffing rule would have posed an unnecessary obstacle to future innovation in the rail industry, whose crew staffing matters have been well served by the Railway Labor Act since 1926.

But several states had enacted laws requiring a minimum train crew size, and those states have sued FRA in federal court

Those lawsuits are ongoing, and oral arguments are slated for October before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Meanwhile, the issue of crew size is also being carried into contract negotiations between the rail unions and the freight railroads. Those negotiations began last November, and they were reinforced in February when a federal judge ruled that the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, Transportation Division (SMART-TD) must begin bargaining with the railroads on the proposals regarding train consists — the people who move the train — per the Railroad Labor Act. 

The Association of American Railroads has said the issue of crew size is best suited for discussion during labor negotiations. 

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Joanna Marsh.

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