While the Legislature grapples to find consensus in a special session, the transportation omnibus bill includes policy provisions that have a direct impact on people’s lives.
Last week, the Minnesota House passed HF 286, the minimum train crew requirement, which is now before the Senate with significant bipartisan support. The same policy language remains in the transportation omnibus bill. Authored by Rep. Frank Hornstein and Sen. Scott Dibble, it would require two crew members on all Class One and Class Two trains moving in Minnesota.
Freight trains are not magic carpets made of steel. They are mass tonnage machines that may be two miles long and move across country around the clock under all weather conditions. Trains stop during operations to service industries, meet other trains, or because of mechanical failures. Two people are necessary to keep road crossings over tracks open, repair trains quickly, and respond to emergencies immediately.
All Class One trains have two crew on board currently and these functions among others are performed safely and efficiently.
However, to increase profits, the American Association of Railroads (AAR) and several Class One Railroads desire to run one-person or fully autonomous trains. Railroads have also sued in federal courts asserting their right to block public crossings — and have prevailed. To ensure public safety, the Legislature should pass this policy provision into law and protect Minnesotans.
The minimum train crew provision is not federally pre-empted and poses no undue burden on commerce. There is no federal regulation governing train crew size. As this state legislation applies to Class One and Class Two trains moving in Minnesota, smaller Class Three short-lines are exempt. Train crew workers can be union or nonunion.
Six other states have now passed legislation mandating two-person train crews, and numerous other states are doing the same.
This legislation raises one fundamental question: After train and vehicle collisions, is the Legislature going to allow interstate railroads to leave injured persons lying unattended in the ditches of Minnesota? Since 2014, Minnesota has averaged 40 collisions per year, many in rural areas. Hornstein’s House committee heard testimony regarding what many public safety officers already know but the railroads will never tell you about crossing collisions: train crews provide Samaritan response to the injured after vehicle and train collisions.
When emergency responders arrive, a train crew member is already holding the injured together, applying pressure points to victims’ bleeding. The crew member has a radio to the engineer still at the train controls, and the train crew assists emergency responders.
The railroads claim that safety is a collective bargaining issue. That is not true. Nothing in employee contracts protects the public. The railroads have their legal responsibility to shareholders; unions have a legal obligation to protect the safety and interests of their members. Neither has a specific obligation to the public.
The Legislature has the responsibility to assure safe passage on roadways and to protect the citizens of this state.
The railroads claim that technology is rendering train crews obsolete. Incorrect. First, railroads generate and own safety data. And Positive Train Control, track wayside and mechanical detectors cannot perform train tasks such as repairing or setting out defective cars en route. New technology does not stop trains short of road crossings, uncouple and open crossings when trains stop, or secure equipment from rolling away. And new technology cannot respond to crossing emergencies or hazardous material derailments immediately.
In February 2019, DFM Group, an independent public pollster contracted by railroad workers, found that 83% of Minnesotans support a law requiring at least two individuals on all trains after hearing both the AAR with Class One railroads’ comments and rail labor’s comments before Congress.
Unfortunately, the Senate Transportation committee refused to even hear this safety legislation despite bipartisan support. In 2016, the prior Minnesota Senate passed this same legislation with broad bipartisan support. Gov. Tim Walz also supports minimum train crew legislation.
As the 2019 Legislature rumbles toward a close, GOP Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and his caucus will have the opportunity to pass minimum train crew safety legislation. Minnesota must not allow the railroads to operate trains across our state that pose a threat to public safety.
Phillip Qualy is a railroad conductor and yardmaster and Minnesota legislative director for the UTU-SMART-TD, Sheet metal, Air, Rail and Transit Union.