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Railroad Workers Reject BNSF Plan To Have Single-Employee Train Crews

Loco Steve

A union representing railroad conductors and switchmen has rejected a plan from BNSF Railway to operate some freight trains with a single employee. Many union members said the proposal raised serious safety concerns. 

BNSF runs important routes throughout the Pacific Northwest, from British Columbia to Portland and across the country.

The company proposed to members of the union known as SMART-TD that the position of conductor be eliminated on some trains built with a new collision-avoidance system called Positive Train Control, leaving just an engineer on board.

The plan drew criticism from train workers — even ones not represented by that union.

"I think for most workers, the idea of working all alone and especially in an environment like ours, where you’re often exposed to the elements, often extremely isolated, is a very, very daunting prospect," said Ron Kaminkow, general secretary of Railroad Workers United, a labor group that opposes the idea of one-person trains.

BNSF proposed having a so-called master conductor help the train remotely if there was a problem, and the company said it would not use one-man crews for trains hauling hazardous materials, including crude oil. 

BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said in an emailed statement that the company respects the workers’ decision to vote against the plan. 

Family Members Express Concerns

Family members also spoke out against the proposal. Tessa Hull, from Creston, Iowa, is married to a BNSF conductor. She said she was worried the plan would mean he would eventually lose his job because the company wouldn't need as many conductors, and she said she was worried for her other family members, including her father, who are engineers with BNSF. 

"I did not agree with the fact that they would be alone on the train, and if there was some type of catastrophe or if their health was at risk, there wouldn't be anybody to get them help in time," she said. "So it's a real safety issue for lots of my family."

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.