Washington state will require a minimum train crew size

A photograph of a man inside a locomotive engine. He is by the window.

Washington state Governor Jay Inslee (D) has signed into law a bill that requires freight trains to have at least two crew members.

The bill, H.B. 1841, becomes effective June 11. Before signing the bill last week, Inslee vetoed a section of the bill saying that the bill would become effective immediately, saying that the state’s Utilities and Transportation Commission needs time to engage with stakeholders on the bill.

The bill sets minimum crew size requirements for certain rail carriers, including the Class I railroads, although Class III carriers traveling under 25 miles per hour are exempt. Should a train defy the law, the Utilities and Transportation Commission can fine rail carriers. 

“The legislature finds that adequate personnel are critical to ensuring railroad operational safety, security, and in the event of a hazardous material incident, support of first responder activities, as well as in the interest of the safety of passengers and the general public,” according to the bill. “Therefore, the legislature declares that this act regulating minimum railroad employee staffing to reduce risk to localities constitutes an exercise of the state’s police power to protect and promote the health, safety, security, and welfare of the residents of the state by reducing the risk exposure to local communities and protecting environmentally sensitive and/or pristine lands and waterways.”

The bill also gives the commission discretion on whether to order a freight rail carrier to have more than two members attending the train, based on if there’s a perceived risk to local communities because of what that the train might be carrying. 

Separately, Washington state has been battling with neighboring states over crude-by-rail passing through Washington. The state passed a law that set restrictions on crude-by-rail, but North Dakota and Montana are contesting the law, saying that it curtails the ability of North Dakota refineries to ship Bakken crude.

Representatives of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) said they were pleased with the bill’s passage. “Increased train length and over-reliance on technology senselessly pushes the limits of safety, which endangers everyone and puts our environment at risk. With additional eyes and personnel available, the risk is reduced. The implementation of technology alone is not the final answer or the ‘silver bullet’ fix to safety that railroad lobbyists would have everyone believe. It is the trained professionals in the cab – in concert with technology – who oversee and safeguard safe railroad operating practices. It is up to locomotive engineers and conductors to readily identify and correct problems – before they occur,” said BLET Washington State Legislative Board Chairman Shahraim C. Allen.

Earlier this year, a federal court ordered the rail unions to negotiate with the freight railroads over the issue of train crew staffing.