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BNSF’s Proposal For One-Person Train Crews Concerns Rail Workers

Matthew Brown
AP Photo
FILE - In this Nov. 6, 2013, file photo, a BNSF Railway train hauls crude oil near Wolf Point, Montana.

Railroad workers are speaking out against a proposal by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway to have single-employee freight train crews. They say the idea is unsafe, especially in light of the increasing transportation of crude oil by rail.

The controversy stems from a tentative contract agreement BNSF has reached with one of its unions, the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union. If union members approve that deal, BNSF could operate freight trains with just an engineer onboard. That engineer would have help from a so-called master conductor who would not be on the train.

The company says it would only use single-person crews on trains that have a computerized collision-avoidance system, and not on trains carrying crude oil or other hazardous materials. But some workers say the proposal is still too risky.

“To be safe in the communities that we’re running these trains through, you need to remove as many hazards as possible, not add one giant one, which is essentially what this is doing,” said Jen Wallis, a BNSF conductor who is not part of the union that will vote on the deal.

Wallis says there’s nothing in the contract that prevents BNSF from using one-person crews to haul hazardous materials.

People have been paying close attention to rail safety in the wake of the deadly rail disaster in Quebec last year that killed 47 people. That train had one employee on duty who left it unmanned when the accident occurred.

The Federal Railroad Administration in the U.S. has said it plans to issue a rule requiring two-person crews on crude oil trains. Union officials did not return calls for comment.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.

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