September 3, 2013

Lac-Megantic adds voices on crew size issue

Since a 1963 law, federal officials have let the railroad owners and unions settle the safety vs. money fight, but that may be changing.

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON - The nation was on the brink of a crippling national strike by railroad workers in the summer of 1963 when Congress stepped in to settle a years-long battle over how many men it took to safely operate a train.


 

The bill, signed by President John F. Kennedy in August 1963, set a historic precedent by forcing labor unions and railroad management into arbitration, a process that eventually allowed rail companies to trim their payrolls yet also protected the unionized workers who filled those jobs.

Fifty years later, some of the same arguments over safety (and jobs) versus necessity (and money) still echo in Washington as the unions and railroads debate whether one person should be allowed to operate a train hauling hazardous materials.

But the 2013 debate is taking place in the shadow cast by the 47 people killed by a Maine-bound train that barreled into Lac-Megantic, Quebec, derailed and exploded with tremendous fury.

"It's not clear whether crew size had any impact on this particular accident, but ... it is one (factor) that has been associated with this accident," Robert Lauby, the Federal Railroad Administration's chief safety officer, said last week. "And although it may not be causal, it is something that the public demands that we take a look at and make sure we are handling it appropriately."

CREW SIZE AN ISSUE 50 YEARS AGO

The date Aug. 28, 1963, is remembered for a much different reason than Kennedy signing the forced-arbitration rail bill. A few blocks from the White House, at the Lincoln Memorial, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I have a dream" speech to the largest civil rights rally in U.S. history.

But the rail bill was big enough news to earn top-of-the-page treatment alongside the March on Washington in the next day's New York Times under a headline declaring, "Kennedy Signs Bill Averting Rail Strike -- Precedent Is Set."

The legislation was, indeed, a landmark in the history of America's railroads. It also has direct connections to a current debate over crew size intensified by the fiery train disaster this summer near the Maine-Quebec border.

By late 1963, labor and management had reached a compromise that would allow the railroads to drop from five crew members to two, including by eliminating fireman positions responsible for keeping the fires going aboard steam locomotives. The industry had largely switched to diesel locomotives. The deal allowed most affected union workers to stay on until retirement, however.

Today, the vast majority of freight trains in the U.S. and Canada still operate with at least two crew members -- a conductor and a locomotive engineer. Yet minimum crew size is set at the collective bargaining table between the unions and the major railroads, not by federal regulators in Washington.

For more than a decade, the two sides have periodically clashed over attempts by the industry to allow a single-person crew on some trains. A handful of smaller -- or so-called short-line -- railroads have already dropped back to one-man crews, a fact unknown to many residents of trackside towns until July 6.

RUNAWAY TRAIN DRAWS SCRUTINY

A single engineer had been behind the controls of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic train en route from North Dakota oil fields to a refinery in coastal New Brunswick on July 5. The engineer parked the train -- which had five locomotives, 72 crude oil tankers and one buffer car stretching for nearly a mile, or 4,700 feet -- on the main tracks about seven miles outside of Lac-Megantic and retired for the night.

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