Jordan Green reflects on House Bill 2874 about the railroad industry

by Jordan Green

A state lawmaker has filed a bill to protect the hard-working men and women of the railroad industry. But even if the Legislature passes his bill, it’s going to be derailed.

Rep. David Perryman, a Democrat from Chickasha, has filed House Bill 2874, which would require all freight trains in Oklahoma to have two-man crews: an engineer, who runs the locomotive, and a conductor, who inspects cars and directs the engineer.

So, why?

In May 2019, the Federal Railroad Administration dropped a proposed rule that would have required two-man crews on trains. It was first discussed in 2016 in response to two train-related accidents that occurred three years prior. At the time, FRA officials said they would review whether crew sizes have an impact on railroad safety.

But alas, the verdict from the government: You don’t need two people on a train to make it safer.

Ronald Batory, administrator of the FRA, said in the Federal Register that the agency has found no evidence showing that staffing requirements increase safety. But that’s in direct contradiction to the testimony of more than a thousand railroad employees who said two-man crews are critical to protecting the lives of crew members and the public alike.

During the rule-making process, the FRA accepted public comments. The consensus among railroad workers: Staffing requirements are imperative.

“The vast majority of comments supporting crew staffing requirements, approximately 1,418, were filed by members of the public on behalf of themselves as individuals,” Batory wrote in the Federal Register filing. “Most of these individual commenters identified themselves as current, former, or retired train crewmembers. These commenters largely provided anecdotal information supporting why they thought trains staffed with fewer than two persons created unsafe conditions.”

Even if two-man crews don’t improve safety, as the government wants you to believe, they’re still vital to the industry. As a railroad worker myself, I can tell you why.

Engineers are responsible for operating the locomotive. They sit in the cab and watch the rail ahead, blow the horn at crossings, and keep their hands on the throttle.

It sounds simple. But in reality, there are dozens of moving parts to keep track of. Engineers also have to watch out for pedestrians and cars on the tracks.

But what happens if, say, a brake hose on the train comes apart? Each train car has brakes, and if just one car’s brakes fail, the entire train will eventually stop. Without a conductor there to help remedy the problem, the train could be stuck for quite some time until a repair crew comes along. If the train is in a remote area, it’s going to take even longer. That leaves a train sitting somewhere – potentially blocking road crossings used by commuters and emergency vehicles – for hours.

Conductors play an important role in quickly finding and repairing those kinds of problems.

But for Batory, a longtime railroad executive, hearing from the men and women who ride the rails every day wasn’t convincing enough. He wrote that staffing requirements would “impede the future of rail innovation and automation.”

In other words, requiring two-man crews is bad because it would protect people’s jobs and prevent corporations from replacing people with machines. And that’s exactly what major railroads are wanting to do right now.

Hunter Harrison served as president of CSX, one of the nation’s largest railroad companies, for just a few months before he died in 2017. May he rest in peace.

Even though his tenure was short, his impact on the industry wasn’t. He created a practice called precision-scheduled railroading. Here’s the gist of it: Make trains longer, that way you can employ fewer engineers and conductors. Get rid of customers who don’t make you enough money. And force your remaining customers to abide by your schedule – or get rid of them, too.

The goal of PSR is to give railroads short-term increases in profit by reducing expenses. In that way, the program worked – for a while. But as the Wall Street Journal reports, those profits are already drying up. In August 2019, the Journal reported that rising stock prices for CSX, Norfolk Southern, and Union Pacific had already started to slow down. It’s becoming cheaper to ship goods by truck, and it’s becoming easier, too. Trucking companies probably won’t turn down shipping opportunities for smaller businesses. Even if they did, independent truckers would pick up the slack.

Thus far, PSR hasn’t improved the business of railroading. But it has railroaded thousands of employees. According to a January article in the Washington Post, more than 20,000 railroad workers have lost their jobs in the last year. When they receive government assistance, it’s the money earned by We the People – not large companies – that supports them.

Large railroads will come off the rails if they continue to slash staffing and cut customer contracts. The victims here are employees who have families to provide for, and customers who have goods to ship but no efficient way to bring them to market. The tragedy of the situation is that the federal agency designed to keep workers safe is letting railroads go ahead with plans to further reduce staffing levels.

After dropping the proposed staffing rule, the FRA imposed a preemptive directive; it overrides and essentially nullifies any state laws meant to protect staffing requirements. So even if the Oklahoma Legislature passes Perryman’s bill, it would be unenforceable.

For the railroad industry, which has historically prided itself on giving Americans good-paying jobs, PSR is a terrible about-face, one that the federal government should put to a stop. But the FRA has ignored the testimony of railroad workers and instead bowed to the demands of large corporations, who finance political campaigns and abuse the endless benefits of our nation’s capitalistic economy.

Perryman has his heart in the right place by trying to protect the people who work day and night to keep this country moving. But thanks to career politicians and wealthy shareholders in Washington, his noble plan to safeguard the livelihoods of railroad workers has already been derailed.