The biggest U.S. freight railroads appear ready to renew their push to reduce their crews to one person from the current two-man operation used at major railroads now.
Eight U.S. railroads have filed a federal lawsuit against the union that represents rail conductors to force the union to negotiate about crew sizes during the next round of contract talks that starts in November.
The union says the railroads are undermining the bargaining process by turning to courts to force the issue.
The railroads argue they should be allowed to negotiate to have the discretion to operate trains with reduced crews and possibly move conductors out of locomotives to ground-based jobs.
Labor agreements requiring two-person crews have been in place for roughly 30 years at the major railroads, although many short-line railroads operate with one-man crews already.
Earlier this year, the Federal Railroad Administration abandoned a proposed rule to require two-man crews because it said there wasn’t enough evidence to show they are safer.
Railroads argue that the completion of new systems that can stop trains automatically, called Positive Train Control, will make it unnecessary to have a second person in the locomotive. All the major railroads are required to have those systems operating by the end of 2020.
Five years ago, BNSF negotiated a contract that would have allowed one-person crews on tracks with that automatic braking system, but the union rejected that deal.
The latest one-person crew proposal comes as the rail industry works to increase train length, and railroads are expanding capacity to handle even more freight.
Railroad labor groups have been campaigning against the idea of one-person crews for years because of concerns about safety risks and preserving railroad jobs.
“This latest attempt is nothing new, and it will once again be met with a vigorous defense,” said Jeremy Ferguson, president of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers union’s Transportation Division.
The railroad industry has emphasized that crash data doesn’t show that two-man crews are safer than one-person crews.
Initially, freight railroads want to use one-person crews only on sections of rail where Positive Train Control is in place and where operations are best suited to a single engineer, according to the National Railway Labor Conference that negotiates for the major railroads.
The federal lawsuit filed last week in Texas includes, Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern, BNSF, CSX and several smaller railroads.