(Updates throughout with additional reporting.)
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The Transportation Department is advancing a proposal to mandate at least two crew members on trains, a move that railroads argue would hurt the industry and should be reconsidered.
The proposed rule, set to publish in the Federal Register Thursday, would allow for some exceptions and includes a process for railroads to petition the Federal Railroad Administration to continue existing or new one-person crews. The controversial action comes after Republicans and industry representatives argued that a crew-size mandate isn’t needed, while labor unions supported the efforts, saying reducing operators would jeopardize safety.
“This proposed rule will improve safety for America’s rail passengers—and rail workers—across the country,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement Wednesday.
President Joe Biden pledged during his campaign that he would require two-person crews on freight trains. 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administration, the FRA proposed a rule requiring railroads to operate with two people in a cab locomotive, but it was withdrawn during the Trump administration.
The Association of American Railroads, which represents major freight railroads, blasted the new proposal, arguing that it wouldn’t improve safety but would “lock in yesterday’s regulatory approaches” while other modal agencies at the department support new technology, including automation.
“Today’s proposal prioritizes politics over sound, data-driven safety policy,” Ian Jefferies, president and CEO of AAR, said in a statement Wednesday. “As has always been the case, railroad staffing and duty assignment decisions belong at the bargaining table.”
Republican lawmakers have raised concerns that the coming rule would increase costs and worker pressures as the US faces a tight labor market. Freight railroads have said they are already working to hire additional workers in response to supply chain concerns.
The FRA touted the proposal as improving safety by replacing a patchwork of state laws about crew size with a national standard. Amit Bose, head of the FRA, said in a statement that the department makes decisions based on data. If railroads want less than two in a crew, the agency is proposing “they perform a rigorous, thorough, and transparent risk assessment and hazard analysis,” he said.
Labor groups had pushed for the regulation. Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO, said transportation worker groups welcomed the proposal and would further evaluate the rule and submit a formal opinion before the end of the comment period in September.
“This proposed rule acknowledges that crew size is fundamentally a safety issue at its core,” Regan said in a statement Wednesday. “By creating a federal standard across the industry, the FRA can address the significant safety concerns presented by railroads operating with single person crews.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Lillianna Byington in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org