Rank-and-File Rail Workers Rebel Against Single-Person Crews

Kari Lydersen

Rail crews often travel through remote areas with trains up to a mile long. Workers say having just one engineer as crew would be unsafe, for rail workers and communities.

Railroad workers scored a victory last week in a years-long battle over the introduction of single-person crews on freight trains, a move that railroad workers say is a recipe for disaster. On September 10, a unit of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air and Rail Transportation Workers (SMART) union announced that members had voted down a proposed contract which would have allowed the railroad company BNSF to run more than half its trains with just one worker on board.

BNSF and other railroad companies assert that automation and modern controls on tracks mean freight trains can be safely and efficiently operated by only one engineer, a change that would essentially eliminate the position of the conductor.

Railroad workers, however, say that having only one person on trains that are often more than a mile long is a safety risk for workers and communities alike, especially as more and more trains are involved in carrying explosive crude oil cross-country. The introduction of single-person crews would further a longstanding push by industry to reduce the number of workers needed to operate trains; currently most freight trains have a conductor and an engineer, but in decades past crews of three to five people were common. An industry shift to single-person crews would likely mean significant job losses, and significant savings for railroads on labor costs.

Currently the major railroads like BNSF are not using single-person crews, but smaller railroads are. The July 2013 Lac-Megantic disaster in Quebec, in which a train derailed and caused a deadly explosion, brought increased scrutiny of single-person crews. 

The contract between the union and BNSF had been negotiated by a union leadership body known as the district committee, SMART GO-001, representing about 3,000 conductors, brakemen and switchmen in multiple states. Leaders of Railroad Workers United (RWU), a national organization that includes members from the country’s 13 different railroad labor unions, said that SMART GO-001 leadership had pushed for approval of the single-person crew provision, apparently as a way to gain other concessions from BNSF.

SMART’s national leadership opposes single-person crews, and supports proposed federal legislation on the issue. The Rail Safety Improvement Act (S. 2784) just introduced in the Senate on September 10, and the Safe Freight Act (HR 3040), introduced in August 2013 in the House, would require two workers on any freight train.

In a statement on SMART’s website, SMART Transportation Division President John Previsich says: No one would permit an airliner to fly with just one pilot, even though they can fly themselves. Trains, which cannot operate themselves, should be no different.”

In an email notifying union members that the proposed contract had been voted down, SMART GO-001 committee general chairperson Randall Knutson said, Moving forward, this office will notify BNSF Labor Relations that we remain open to informal conversation regarding these matters, but will oppose any formal attempt by BNSF to serve notice to change our existing crew consist agreements prior to the attrition of all protected employees.”

In other words, the leadership indicated that it would not cooperate with the company in pushing single-person crews any longer. Knutson’s email also said the leadership would be in touch with more details about the contract fight in coming weeks.

SMART GO-001 district committee leaders did not return a phone message or emails for this story.

The proposed contract had also included benefits for workers, including three percent raises per year, $5,000 signing bonuses, potential $100,000 buyouts, faster accumulation of vacation time and other perks.

RWU leaders and spouses of SMART railroad workers who talked with Working In These Times called the benefits smoke and mirrors” that were relatively insignificant in the face of potential layoffs and safety hazards raised by the single-person crew provision.

Under the proposed contract, conductors who would lose their positions on trains would have the chance to become master conductors” who would be tasked with driving around to trains in need of assistance. The positions would offer more regular hours with steady pay and other perks, but not every conductor removed from trains would be able to make the switch.

In an analysis of the proposed contract, RWU said that there would have been as many as 30 layoffs for every conductor who became a master conductor. Master conductors would have been chosen based on seniority, meaning many young conductors would lose their jobs.

When Shawneen Falck and her husband, a conductor based in Seattle, read the proposed contract, they were furious. Tessa Hull and her husband, a railroad worker in Creston, Iowa, felt the same way. The workers themselves cannot speak publicly about the issue without risking their jobs, both women said, so spouses of railroad workers quickly took the lead in the public fight.

Falck and Hull told Working In These Times that immediately” upon reading the proposed contract, which was posted online on July 25, they began letting other union members and community residents know about their concerns with one-man crews. Falck launched a Facebook group called Spouses & Families Against One-Man Crews, which now has over 5,800 likes.”

When her husband saw the proposed contract, “[he] was devastated,” says Falck. He realized, My job will be gone, or if I make the cut I’ll be in a car trying to find the trains when they’re in trouble.’ They’ll be out on those treacherous roads, in those treacherous Washington passes, in our winters which are awful. It would have turned our conductors into van drivers, gofers. They were taking the first responder off the train, which is the conductor. They’d be turning our conductors into guinea pigs, putting their lives at risk. We said, This can’t happen.’”

Hull said the proposed contract made the master conductor job look attractive, but it would be meaningless for people like her husband – a conductor for five years – if they were laid off.

It kind of hinted, You will always have a job but won’t have to work as much, you would be home at night, you would have a steady set schedule,’” she said. As a railroader you don’t have a set schedule – but you know that when you hire on.”

BNSF declined to answer questions about the proposed contract or vote, but in a statement provided to In These Times, Vice President of labor relations John Fleps says, As we have said from the beginning, it has ultimately been up to the men and women of SMART-TD at BNSF to decide whether to proceed with this agreement. They have decided not to move forward at this time and we respect the process.”

Railroad workers view one-man crews as both a workers rights and public safety issue. They stress that the change would put an unfair and dangerous burden on the engineers running trains, as well as creating a hazard for the general public, given that the risk of accidents is likely to be higher when only one person is manning a train.

In the weeks after the proposed contract was posted, leaders of SMART GO-001 traveled around the country to meet with union members. When they visited Falck’s and Hull’s communities, they were met by residents holding signs opposing single-person crews, according to the two women.

Hull is the president of the union auxiliary committee in Creston, which she describes as a town built by the railroad.” Her father has worked for the railroad for four decades, and her whole family is railroad.” Throughout the month of August, she explains, her family held signs and talked to community community about the single-person crew issue every Tuesday and Thursday night.

The night the union general chairman came to speak, we had a huge group of people holding signs letting them know we didn’t want it to pass,” she said. The union was definitely trying to push [the proposed contract] through, to sway anybody and everybody. But [the local workers] were all very well-educated on the contract, they had been working here long enough to know that stuff won’t work.”

Falck said it is significant that railroad workers who were not covered by the proposed contract joined the effort to defeat it. Engineers and conductors are members of different unions which are often at odds and pitted against each other by railroad companies, many railroad workers say. But Falck, Hull and RWU leaders said that engineers were an important part of the opposition, even though they potentially could have gotten salary increases for running trains alone.

For years they fought against each other, but spouses and families said, There is no line – we’re fighting for everybody’s safety,’” Falck said. And these guys need each other. Oh man, they didn’t want to be in that cab alone.”

RWU leader J.P. Wright, a locomotive engineer for CSX in Kentucky, said the situation with the contract sheds light on a larger problem in the railroad industry – the way contracts are negotiated by district committees in secret” with little input from members. Contract negotiations for railroad workers are governed by the Railway Labor Act, which Wright and other leaders say has serious flaws.

All the bells and whistles they could possibly put on the contract were there – they did load this agreement up with a lot of goodies,” said Wright, a musician who performs songs about the single-person crew issue. Even so, they voted it down. The very nature of how the contracts are being negotiated is what caused this problem. The membership is never cut into the process, into what exactly was being negotiated. If the membership would have known beforehand that this was what they were coming up with, they would have known a long time ago to say, No, we don’t want to do this.’”

Though they see the recent vote as a significant victory on the single-person crew issue, RWU leaders think BNSF and other railroad companies will continue pushing for single-person crews in other contracts, including an ongoing battle at the Wheeling & Lake Erie Railway in Ohio. RWU general secretary and longtime rail worker Ron Kaminkow said he thinks company officials are likely to seek out individual district committees they think are more open to negotiating and compromise, like the SMART-GO-001 leadership.

Make no mistake, this is not a nail in the coffin” of single-person crews, Kaminkow told In These Times. The carriers have been pushing this for years. It’s not just going to go away. This is the opening shot in the escalation of the war.”

Help In These Times Celebrate & Have Your Gift Matched!

In These Times is proud to share that we were recently awarded the 16th Annual Izzy Award from the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. The Izzy Award goes to an independent outlet, journalist or producer for contributions to culture, politics or journalism created outside traditional corporate structures.

Fellow 2024 Izzy awardees include Trina Reynolds-Tyler and Sarah Conway for their joint investigative series “Missing In Chicago," and journalists Mohammed El-Kurd and Lynzy Billing. The Izzy judges also gave special recognition to Democracy Now! for coverage that documented the destruction wreaked in Gaza and raised Palestinian voices to public awareness.

In These Times is proud to stand alongside our fellow awardees in accepting the 2024 Izzy Award. To help us continue producing award-winning journalism a generous donor has pledged to match any donation, dollar-for-dollar, up to $20,000.

Will you help In These Times celebrate and have your gift matched today? Make a tax-deductible contribution to support independent media.

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

The War on Protest Cover
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.