Union Pacific and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers –Transportation Division (SMART-TD) have agreed to hold off on plans to redeploy conductors to work on the ground while the engineer stays on the train.
Instead, a tentative agreement between the two parties calls for train conductors to remain as a member of a two-person train crew alongside the locomotive engineer. The agreement also “provides long-term job protection to current employees, and gives the railroad greater flexibility to deploy brake or switch persons to work either in or outside the yard,” according to a Saturday news release.
“We are pleased that Union Pacific is focusing on quality of life for our conductor workforce,” SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson said in the release. “Along with the scheduling enhancements, which were part of last year’s national agreements, we have an opportunity to positively impact our conductors by giving them fixed days off and greater certainty about their weekly assignments.”
As a result of this latest development, UP’s section 6 notice to redeploy conductors closes should the proposed agreement be ratified.
UP (NYSE: UNP) had argued before the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) last December that redeploying the train conductor for some routes would result in a more consistent and traditional workday for conductors. UP had wanted to test out a train crew arrangement in which an engineer is in charge of moving a train while a grounds-based conductor — which UP called “expeditors” — would respond to potential problems encountered by the train by driving a vehicle to the problem site.
But in January, UP indicated that the pilot program would be on hold as it discussed the program with SMART-TD.
Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC), another Class I railroad seeking to redeploy the train conductor to a grounds-based role, also said last week that it is holding off on that pursuit after negotiating with SMART-TD.
“This agreement with SMART-TD reflects Union Pacific’s commitment to enhance the quality of life for our employees through predictable, scheduled shift work while giving us greater scheduling flexibility that will also improve customer service,” said Beth Whited, UP executive vice president of sustainability and strategy. “We are working to finalize the contract details as quickly as possible.”
The debate over train crew sizes comes amid FRA’s proposed rulemaking that would require freight trains to have at least two crew members in the locomotive cab. The rulemaking process has garnered hundreds of responses from both sides, and UP’s comments in December were at an FRA hearing on the issue.
The railroads have said modifying the train conductor’s role would enable the industry to attract potential workers and retain existing ones who would otherwise be turned off by the long hours and unpredictable schedules.
The railroads have also said that positive train control (PTC), a safety technology that the Class I railroads spent millions to install in response to a federal mandate calling for the technology, performs some of the functions that a conductor handles now. Conductors traditionally have served as lookouts and advisers to train engineers, copying and acquiring directions from the dispatcher and communicating with the roadway worker in charge before entering a worksite. But in a territory where PTC has been implemented, it may no longer be necessary for the conductor to do these duties while inside the cab because the PTC system communicates this information directly to the engineer.
But union members have argued that trains need at least two people in the locomotive cab because it ensures safer operations. There are many unplanned situations in which a conductor can respond to an incident in a way that an engineer cannot, such as crossing gate failures or locomotive failures that may require switching locomotives within a locomotive consist. The absence of a conductor inside the cab could also overburden the engineer, who would need to keep track of the network updates provided by PTC in addition to performing regular functions.
Some union members also say the deployment of a one-person crew is an effort to cut costs in the name of precision scheduled railroading, a method that had been adopted by the Class I railroads in the last five years to streamline operations and reduce costs.
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Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Joanna Marsh.
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