On crew size, I smell a rat

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Monday, August 15, 2016

I fully realize that it’s an article of faith among the readers of this blog who operate trains that the Federal Railroad Administration’s proposed rule mandating two people on all trains is an urgent safety issue. And maybe it is. The problem I’ve had all along is that the two-person rule is being treated by FRA in such a political manner as to cause me to question the agency’s sincerity. Now the Association of American Railroads, which of course represents the employers of engineers and conductors, has drawn back the curtain a bit more, to expose the FRA wizard manipulating the handles of government.

The proposal first surfaced in April 2014. At the time Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, whose department oversees the FRA, cited derailment of crude oil trains in the accompanying press release as a reason for requiring two people in the cab of moving trains.

My suspicions arose at the time because it was known that Joseph Szabo would be leaving the post of FRA administrator soon (his resignation was made known seven months later, in November 2014) and it seemed to me like a parting favor to his former employer, the United Transportation Union (now affiliated with the Sheet Metal Workers). And those suspicions were heightened in 2014 because the FRA could cite no link between having only an engineer on board a train and railroad accident rates. Probably for that reason the rulemaking got lost somewhere in the U.S. Office of Management & Budget, a White House affiliate that puts proposed regulations to the hee-haw test.

But the Obama Administration, according to published reports, is anxious in its final months to accomplish a lot of things by the regulatory route, and crew size is apparently one of them, because the rulemaking was revived this year, and hearings were held in July. Again, the agency admitted it could provide no statistical rationale for the rulemaking.

In a letter to the agency written May 20 and made public today, AAR asks that secret data the FRA appears to be relying on be made public. The agency never responded to the trade group. My interpretation of this request by AAR is that the secret data, if made public, would be exposed as shallow, inconclusive, unpersuasive or all of the above. The trade group also made known that FRA has commissioned a study by Duke University researchers to support the rule—this long after the fact of the regulation’s proposal, both in 2014 and 2016. To state it another way, FRA proposed a rule two years ago which has no statistical justification, but never mind, because it is trying to cook up that justification in Duke’s kitchen even as you read this.

Readers who are engineers or conductors, please withhold your fire; I am holding no weapon in my hands. In other words, I don’t take issue with this rulemaking because I think it is good or bad. Intuitively, it makes sense. But intuitively, it also made sense that the engineer and conductor of BNSF Railway train S-LACLPC1-26K, on duty only a few hours, would have remained alert and not passed a stop signal at high speed on June 28 that caused a head-on collision claiming their lives and one other. Would three persons in the locomotive have made a difference? Four? Five?

No, I take issue with this rulemaking because I smell a rat, a political fix. I smelled it two years ago and I still do. You wonder why, in both political parties, people have risen in rebellion this year against the cynicism they see within their government. This case is but one example. The FRA is using the force of government to solve a problem it can’t prove exists.—Fred W. Frailey

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