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Crew size is the key issue in talks between union, railroad industry



Published: Sat, September 2, 2006 @ 12:00 a.m.



Railroads say technology can help them run trains safely with fewer people.

By DON SHILLING

VINDICATOR BUSINESS EDITOR

YOUNGSTOWN -- Railroads are pushing for the authority to cut train crews from two to one, which would cut jobs and create hazardous conditions, a union official said.

Cutting train crews is one of the issues in contract negotiations going on between the railroads and its unions.

The railroads, represented by the National Carriers Conference Committee, want to eliminate conductors from trains, leaving only an engineer on board, said John Hill, local chairman for Division 565 of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

Negotiations are continuing but little progress is being made, Hill said. National contracts that cover staffing issues expired in July 2005 for the BLET and in December 2004 for the United Transportation Union.

"I can't say we aren't out to protect the employees; we are. But the other big concern is public safety," Hill said.

Railroads are busy these days and more hazardous chemicals, such as chlorine, hydrochloric acid and sulfuric acid, are being transported, he said.

Importance of crew

With two workers on a train, the crew can more easily spot derailments or other problems with the cars behind, he said.

Tracks now are equipped with sensors to spot derailments or overheated wheel bearings, but those devices are too far apart and they won't catch all problems, he said.

"A lot of things can cause a derailment. Operating a train is like running an 11,000-ton Slinky. It always goes in and out," said Hill, an engineer for Norfolk & amp; Southern who lives in Hubbard.

Hill estimated that about 40 percent of conductor positions could be eliminated with one-person crews. Conductors would be used only in rail yards, he said.

There are about 65,000 conductors and 45,000 engineers in the unions nationwide, he said.

Locally, the UTU, which represents most conductors, has about 130 members. The BLET represents about 100 workers, most of whom are engineers.

Joanna Moorhead, a spokeswoman for the carriers bargaining committee, said she didn't want to talk about specifics but added that one-person crews would be used by railroads where they made sense. Some trains would continue to have two-person crews, she said.

In a letter released in March, the committee said no workers would be laid off because of the changes. Thousands of employees are expected to retire in the next few years, giving the railroads the opportunity to add new technology to improve operations, the letter said.

Role of new technology

The railroads explain their position on the negotiations on a Web site -- www.raillaborfacts.org. They said new technology will prevent collisions and reduce opportunities for human error, the most common cause of train accidents.

New technology will:

Warn train operators in advance if the train needs to slow down, is about to exceed the distance required to come to a stop or is about to go beyond its approved travel area.

Stop the train before it goes through a stop signal, exceeds the speed limit or goes outside its approved travel area.

Use satellite or wireless positioning technology to give dispatchers the precise location of trains at all times.

This new technology needs to be coupled with new work rules and staffing requirements so railroads can operate efficiently and make the best use of investment money, the bargaining committee said.

Hill said new technology already has allowed railroads to reduce crews. Trains had five-person crews 30 years ago.

One of the newest devices allows trains to be operated remotely. Now, railroads are using remote control to operate trains in some rail yards.

When trains stop at customer locations to drop off or pick up cars at customer locations, the conductor handles the switching. If conductors are eliminated from trains, the switching would be done by the engineer, or a utility conductor sent out for the job or by a remote-control device, Hill said.

This device would allow the train to be started and pulled forward without an engineer at the front of the train.

Wages, benefits

Railroad wages and benefits also are higher than most industries, the railroads' committee said. The average annual wage of union employees at major railroads is $62,600, and the railroads pay 88 percent of the total cost of medical, dental and vision health care costs, the committee said.

The committee said it does not expect a strike based on previous negotiations, which are normally protracted. Only six transportation days have been lost in the past 30 years due to strikes over nationally bargained issues, it said.

Federal law sets up a system for negotiations, which includes a National Mediation Board to oversee talks. If necessary, a Presidential Emergency Board can be appointed to investigate and recommend solutions. Congress also can step in and prevent or terminate a strike.

shilling@vindy.com




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