Rail Workers Battle Unsafe Remote Control Technology

In 2001, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the government agency charged with overseeing safety on the nation's railroads, gave its wholesale approval for major U.S. railroads to employ remote control operators (RCOs), belt pack devices that move unmanned engines, in switching operations.

Within months, the corporate leadership of the nation's largest railroads had reached agreement with the nation's largest rail union, the United Transportation Union (UTU), for the implementation of remote control technology at rail yards across the country. By spring 2002, pilot projects were set up and the new technology began to be implemented.


For the locomotive engineers who formerly performed this work, the railroads pledge that there will be no actual layoffs. These employees may seek retirement, exercise their seniority and bid on road jobs in pools and extra lists, or even "flow-back" to conductor/trainman positions in the yard or on the road. The net effect of coast-to-coast implementation of remote control will be the elimination of thousands of union jobs.

In addition to the issues of job losses and possible lay-offs, there is the issue of safety, both for the railroad employees and the communities within which these engineerless locomotives will operate.

The railroads point to figures which it claims show a decline in accident-related claims at facilities where remote control was implemented. But these figures may simply be the result of the fact that less employee-hours worked translates into less injuries. In addition, it is not clear if the remote control results in a decline in serious injuries such as the loss of limb or death.

The jury is still out on just how economically efficient RCOs really are in the field. Evidence abounds to show that switching operations are slowed when remote control is used to switch out a train. The work that had been performed by a switchman and an engineer simply cannot be completed in the same time frame by the switchman who now, in addition to the traditional work of coupling cars and air hoses, throwing switches, performing paperwork, conducting air tests, etc. must operate and tend to the locomotive.

A number of switching facilities in Canada, where RCOs have been employed for over a decade, are abolishing remote operations and re-establishing traditional engineer positions aboard locomotives after studies presented the inefficiency of RCOs there.


The fight-back against remotes now largely turns on the safety issue. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers which represents the majority of the nation's enginemen says it is opposed on the grounds that it is unsafe and untested.

The BLE attempted to launch a strike over the issue that the carriers were in violation of the collective bargaining agreement and years of accepted practice that the engineer be the sole operator of the locomotive. The impending strike was outlawed by a federal judge in January 2002.

The union then filed suit later last year that a certified locomotive engineer be in charge of all locomotive operation, not a trainman, whether the operation be manned or remote. It lost that case before federal judge in the fall.



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The BLE has sought other avenues to make its case for safe locomotive operation. The union is highly critical of the 80-hour training period granted to remote control operators vs. the six months training of a real engineer.

At a rally in Washington, D.C. on March 11, engineers and their allies gathered at the FRA headquarters to protest the use of remote control operations. However, the BLE is careful to point out that it is not opposed to the technology per se, but rather that it protests the lack of necessary federal regulations to safely govern the operation of remotes.

The BLE is joined in their anti-remote control efforts by Railroad Employees Safety and Quality, a feisty group of family members and rail workers who are working on workplace safety and quality of work life issues.


Unfortunately, as is often the case with rail labor, the operating unions are divided on the whole subject. The UTU has embraced the technology in a dramatic about face in the last few years. Only a few short years ago, the shoe was on the other foot, as the UTU derided "black boxes" as dangerous, unsafe and impractical, while the BLE was seemingly warming up to the idea.

Now, while the BLE and allies point to its failures, the UTU lauds the technology as being practical, safe, efficient, and has even gone so far as to claim that the new technology has put the "fun" back into railroading!

After recently finding it impossible to court the BLE into a merger, the UTU leadership apparently feared that the BLE may cut their own deal with the carriers on remote control. Not wanting to see the RCO jobs go to the engineers and the BLE, the UTU beat the BLE to the punch. Their action represents the latest monumental failure of over a hundred years of craft unionism on the nation's railroads, and a major step in the "race to the bottom", to use the UTU's own phraseology.

The failure of the UTU and the BLE leadership to form a united front on the issue has undoubtedly dealt a major blow to the anti-remote control forces. But the foes of remotes have made some progress in recent months in outlawing the technology. The strategy they have employed has been one directed at both city and county levels of government, working to convince local legislatures of the dangers inherent in remote operations. Pointing to a number of wrecks and fatal injuries over the last year which have involved RCOs, the BLE and others are attempting to win over local governments to their cause.


The rail industry itself has admitted that, in yards where RCOs have taken over traditional switching operations, there is a notable slow-down and a decrease in efficiency in switching operations. As noted earlier in this article, some Canadian facilities have already begun the process of reverting back to fully staffed locomotive operations. When a major freight yard is not fluid, the ripple effect can wreck havoc upon the entire rail system, as trains line up to get into the yard, plugging up the mainline, affecting operations hundreds of miles distant.

And while the leadership of the UTU may sing its praises, the rank-and-file on the ground is not adjusting to those rose colored glasses so easily. The membership did not ask for this, they do not trust it and do not like it. Now, for just a few dollars more per shift, in addition to performing their old jobs, they are now responsible for the operation and security of the locomotive as well.

Many complain of being harassed and rushed up by trainmasters and other supervision to get the trains switched out. But since the rules clearly state that when the choice is between safety and efficiency, there is no compromise, the employee must choose the safe path. By working safely, always in strict conformity to the rules, UTU represented switchmen may ultimately sound the death knell of remote control and restore the lost jobs of their BLE represented brothers and sisters to their rightful place in the cab of the yard locomotive.