The contentious railroad issues of shrinking crews and longer trains went before a Unicameral committee Monday with labor and management split along familiar lines.
Union leaders and several current or former engineers and conductors, including ones from Hershey and McCook, urged Transportation and Telecommunications Committee members to advance bills to require at least two people on trains and limit train lengths.
Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe representatives opposed both, saying crew-size issues belong in labor contract negotiations and federal court decisions forbid state laws on train lengths.
Legislative Bill 486, introduced by freshman state Sen. Jen Day of Omaha, revives bills from past sessions to set minimum crew sizes at two.
Fremont Sen. Lynne Walz’s LB 539 would cap train lengths at 7,500 feet, although she said she would propose an amendment to alter that to 8,500 feet — just over 1½ miles long.
Nebraskans are increasingly seeing “megatrains” of more than twice that length while railroads, citing further advances in automation, are indicating interest in running trains with one person or none.
Sometimes citing their own on-board experiences, engineers and conductors warned the committee that both public safety and their own are at stake if railroads overrely on technology to stop trains in emergencies.
James Scott Dulin of Hershey, a 33-year U.P. veteran and 15-year accident investigator, said it took both him as engineer and his onboard conductor to narrowly avert tragedy some years ago at Carleton in southeast Nebraska.
An eastbound U.P. coal train derailed there early on Aug. 5, 2004, its engineer quickly alerting Dulin by radio as his North Platte-bound mixed train approached on the opposite track.
Dulin quickly hit the brakes, which couldn’t prevent his three locomotives and many rail cars — including oil tankers — from derailing when struck by wreckage from the coal train.
Nine seconds later, he said, he and his conductor “were upside down, buried in mud, coal and rock” as his lead engine came to rest 4 feet from a 50,000-gallon anhydrous ammonia liquid fertilizer plant.
No one was killed, Dulin said, though neither he nor his partner has driven a train since. But had they not quickly applied the brakes before the first derailment added momentum, his train could have pushed into the fertilizer plant and “Carleton would have been wiped out.”
The first train’s derailment, he added, was traced to a failed plastic insulator meant to interrupt electric flow between rails.
“They’re going to try to tell you that their devices will prevent that. I’m here to tell you that they didn’t work that day,” Dulin said. “The only (safety measure) that didn’t fail that day was the human factor.”
Under current labor contracts, said BNSF spokesman Jeff Davis and four U.P. officials, neither railroad uses fewer than two people on Nebraska trains. Some still also use a brakeman in limited situations.
Davis said BNSF was more likely to “repurpose” its conductors and station them elsewhere on a train than to eliminate them.
In that case, “they will be doing other things” while the engineer is in the lead engine, he said.
Railroad representatives didn’t directly answer senators’ questions about the risks to a sole engineer overcome by a medical emergency with no partner to offer aid and their train several miles from first responders.
But they said LB 486’s minimum two-person crew mandate and LB 539’s train-length limit would harm Nebraska’s competitiveness with other states and their ability to compete with trucks.
Davis said trains have gotten safer every time railroads put new automated technology to use. “We oppose this bill because we don’t know what the transportation industry is going to look like in another 10 years,” he said. “Driverless technology is coming.”
When a train breaks a decoupler or an air-brake line, Davis said, “it could be more efficient to have one person stationed every 30 miles along that track in a truck with equipment” instead of a conductor walking three miles along a stopped megatrain.
But he and the U.P. representatives said the gradual shrinkage of train crews from five people in the 1980s to two today has been done through collective bargaining.
Railroads can’t unilaterally impose one-person crews, they added. “It’s my opinion that rail labor and management are the experts, and we should be the ones discussing what’s required for crew size,” said Brant Hanquist, U.P. general director of labor relations.
Testimony on Walz’s train-length bill had a somewhat different flavor, with supporters also mixing in public frustration with 3-mile-long trains stopping and blocking multiple crossings for hours.
“I have had call after call after call regarding this issue,” Walz said. “And it’s a safety issue. They’re concerned about their safety.”
When that happens, engineers and conductors observed, it can add many minutes for emergency responders trying to find a way across the tracks in rural areas and cities alike.
With approximately one crossing every mile in Nebraska, “there ain’t a place where you’re going to be able to stop that (size of) train and not block a crossing,” Dulin said.
But Connie Roseberry, U.P. senior counsel of safety and operations, said rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court on down have made it clear that states “may not impermissibly regulate train operations” — including their length.
Kelli O’Brien, the railroad’s senior director of public affairs, said U.P. wants the public to alert them to places where stopped trains are hindering people’s ability to cross the tracks.
Nebraskans can call U.P. at 800-848-8715 when they encounter such problems, said O’Brien said. Each crossing has a blue sign listing its number and which railroad uses it.
Jason Meyers of McCook, a BNSF railroader certified as both an engineer and conductor, urged committee members to give more weight to people like him who have the on-track experience.
Management representatives “know how it should work,” Meyers said. “We know how it does work.”
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