Freight train personnel encourage two-person crew mandate for public safety

Supporters say the requirement would enhance safety, while opponents view talks as collective bargaining

By: - March 6, 2023 9:49 pm

State Sen. Mike Jacobson presents a proposal to require at least two people make up freight train crews on Monday, March 6, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — At 5:21 one evening, freight train crews could not tell whether a pickup truck was parked on railroad tracks because of the curvature of the path.

Though the train had improved technology, Amanda Snide said there was no indication the truck was there. Emergency brakes were applied at 38 mph, needing to stop a train of 21,000 tons in time.

Amanda Snide, a conductor for Union Pacific, testifies in support of a proposal to require at least two people make up freight train crews on Monday, March 6, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

At 5:23 p.m., Snide, a conductor for Union Pacific, said the train stopped just in time, nine feet short of impact.

Snide and other train personnel detailed to the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee stories of how two-person train crews helped to save lives.

Jeff Cooley, president of Local 200, detailed his case of saving a 4-year-old girl who sat on the tracks crying because her parents were fighting at home. Cooley said once he saw her hair blowing in the wind, he knew to stop.

Legislative Bill 31, proposed by State Sen. Mike Jacobson of North Platte, would require that freight trains have at least two crew members. The bill has been brought for multiple years in a row with no action.

There is some movement in Congress to require two-person crews after a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, that has brought ecological uncertainty to the area.

Supporters of the Nebraska bill, however, urged lawmakers not to wait on federal action.

“Nebraska has the chance to change things. You have the chance to change things,” Snide said. “You guys have the chance to help make Nebraska safe for not only us — the locomotive engineers that ride the trains with us and the towns that we travel through.”

Opponents of the proposal, largely consisting of railroad organizations and the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the issue is better handled through collective bargaining.

They said if a decision must be made, the Legislature should defer to the federal government.

Necessity for conductors

Jacobson said at least eight other states require two-person crews, which he said can help in preventing collisions, derailments and blocked crossings. This is because train engineers must stay in the engine with a multitude of responsibilities.

Conductors are the second crew members, the right-hand support who inspect the train, communicate with dispatch and the engineer and act as first responders.

“Conductors are a necessity for the safe, efficient operation of the railroad,” Jacobson said.

Jason Meyers, who said he started as a conductor in 2006 and became an engineer in 2012, emphasized that LB 31 would not change anything.

Instead, it would help to maintain the status quo and keep a two-person crew as a safety standard.

“Safety is very, very important to all of us,” Meyers said. “We go home safe because we make that effort. We choose to do so. It’s facilitated through the railroads, but it’s on us.”

Collective bargaining, public safety

Rod Doerr, vice president of crew management system and interline operations for Union Pacific, said crew requirements are largely a result of collective bargaining as part of the Railway Labor Act.

Rod Doerr with Union Pacific testifies against a proposal to require at least two people make up freight train crews on Monday, March 6, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Technology evolutions have been a “catalyst” for negotiations to occur, Doerr said, but Jacobson’s legislation could hurt future conversations, Doerr said.

“Any legislation that attempts to open the terms of these collective bargaining agreements threatens the integrity of labor agreements and compromises future cooperation in negotiations,” Doerr said. “After all, who knows the railroad issues facing the industry better than the very people that work for and manage these operations?”

State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha, a committee member who also added her name to the legislation Monday, criticized Doerr and other opponents for using the two-person crew — the current standard — as a “bargaining chip” over wages, benefits or safety.

“It’s a bargaining chip that you are asking the Legislature to give you, and I don’t think you’re making a case for why we should,” Cavanaugh said.

Jeff Davis with BNSF Railway said that a culture promoting safety is important but that companies need to be able to use the technology they’ve invested in.

Nichole Bogen, legal counsel for Nebraska Central Railroad, voiced concerns with the broad, general language in Jacobson’s proposal and whether her client would be in compliance.

Jacobson said that was done intentionally to leave flexibility in matching the law.

Bogen added there could be legal challenges with federal legislation in progress, but Jacobson countered that two-person requirements have been upheld in the past and would likely continue to be upheld.

Ron Sedlacek, general counsel for the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the chamber recommends uniform regulations rather than a “patchwork” in different states.

Jacobson said he, too, wants to see standards from the federal government and the Federal Railroad Administration.

“But until that time, this is pushing in the right direction,” Jacobson said.

Public service commission criticisms

A recent derailment outside Gothenburg, Nebraska, has also gotten the attention of Gov. Jim Pillen with the Public Service Commission.

“Recently, there have been multiple railroad derailments in Nebraska while key railroad inspector positions have remained unfilled at the PSC for years,” Pillen said Monday in a statement. “I call on the PSC to refocus on its core duties and remain diligent in bettering rail safety.”

Tim Schramm, a commission member, testified in a neutral capacity on LB 31 and focused instead on why the commission has not hired a track inspector for at least a decade.

Schramm said the reason the position has not been filled is that appropriations to fund the position have been rejected by the Legislature year after year.

“The commission recognizes the importance of ensuring public safety and safety rail employees that do the important work in moving necessary goods and commodities in the state,” Schramm said.


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Zach Wendling
Zach Wendling

Zach Wendling is a senior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, double-majoring in journalism and political science. He has interned for The Hill and The News Station in Washington, D.C., and has reported for the Nebraska News Service and The Daily Nebraskan.