Train Crew Size Rule Draws GOP, Rail Rebuke Amid Worker Shortage

  • Biden promised minimum train size rule during campaign
  • Cost concerns run up against union calls for safety

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Republicans and railroads urged President Joe Biden’s rail chief Tuesday against a rule that could require at least two crew members on freight trains.

The administration is weighing a rule that would address potential safety concerns for trains with only one crew member, Amit Bose, administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, testified Tuesday. The proposal has caused contention before its release, pitting employers against employees.

“We definitely want to address the risks associated with less than a two-person crew,” Bose said at a House Transportation and Infrastructure hearing.

Republicans and industry representatives contend that a crew-size mandate is unnecessary, while labor unions say reducing operators would jeopardize safety. During the Obama administration, the FRA proposed a rule requiring railroads to operate with two people in a cab locomotive, but it was withdrawn during the Trump administration.

Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg
A Union Pacific Railroad freight train is shown in St. Louis, Mo., on July 8, 2021.

Rep. Rick Crawford (R-Ark.) said the rule was withdrawn because there wasn’t data to show additional crew members improved safety.

The administration’s proposal “may be just fulfilling another campaign promise to labor unions,” Crawford said. “We’re suffering from the worst inflation we’ve seen in 40 plus years and now we’re talking about increasing labor costs.”

Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.) countered that Class I railroads mainly run two-man crews already, so “there would be no major increase in labor costs.” Biden pledged during the campaign that he would require two-person crews on freight trains.

The US faces a tight labor market, and freight railroads have said they are already working to hire additional workers amid recent supply chain concerns.

Rule Under Review

The FRA has sent the draft notice of the rule to the Office of Management and Budget, which Bose said is under review. The agency plans to get a “robust set of comments” once it is published, he said.

The agency has conducted more research about crew size, which Bose said will be part of the record when the rule goes out. He declined to specify when the rule will publish.

Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), who represents a district with short-line railroads, said he was worried about the rule’s impact on those trains. If it moves forward, it could hurt small businesses and force spending on “unnecessary workforce expansion,” he said.

“Any rule that we put forward has to have a small business consideration built into it,” Bose said.

Unions, Industry Disagree

Labor unions have defended the proposal against industry concerns, saying shrinking crew would endanger workers. Rail carriers are “hell bent” on risking safety by reducing or cutting the two crew members that control train movement, Jeremy Ferguson, president of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, Transportation-Transportation Division, said.

“They will tell you that it is a matter of collective bargaining and that there is no data to support otherwise,” Ferguson told lawmakers. “Please do not be swayed. Safety is not, nor should it ever, be negotiable.”

The Association of American Railroads, which represents major railroads, recently raised concerns about the yet-to-be released regulation, arguing that the industry needs the option to reduce workers in the cab if technology allows.

Industry also points to the lack of data tying crew size to safety. “There is no evidence that trains with one-person crews have accidents at a higher rate than trains with two-person crews,” Cindy Sanborn, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Norfolk Southern Corp., said at the hearing.

A minimum crew-size mandate “would make railroading less competitive against other modes of transportation,” Sanborn said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lillianna Byington in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at; Robin Meszoly at

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