OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Most of the reaction to the predawn death of a rail worker who mistakenly stepped in front of two CSX locomotives last month has focused on whether the 19-year veteran should have seen the train coming and not on the actions of a worker who could hardly see the front of the locomotives he or she was operating using a remote control.
Some railroad unions want more scrutiny of the safety of remote control operations major railroads have used for years in and around railyards without significant problems. Remote control helps limit costs by using less experienced workers to move locomotives that help assemble trains — a task that once required licensed engineers who are among the highest-paid rail workers.
Even if the CSX remote control operator in the Sept. 17 incident in Walbridge, Ohio, did everything right, as the railroad suggests, Don Grissom, president of the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen union, questions why locomotives don’t have an automatic safety warning system at a time when nearly every new automobile will warn drivers when they are close to backing into something.
“They can put a back-up sensor on a car. Why can’t they put something on a locomotive when you get, you know, get so close to them, they automatically ring the horn or something?” Grissom said.
To Grissom, the answer to that question is simple: He thinks CSX and the other major freight railroads are too focused on preserving their profits to invest in technology to better protect workers.
Jacksonville, Florida-based CSX didn’t immediately respond to questions Thursday about why it hasn’t invested in such systems.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the death of Fred Anderson, so it won’t be clear for some time exactly what happened. CSX won’t discuss the incident because the investigation is ongoing. But the agency said when it issued a preliminary report this week that after viewing surveillance video and talking to witnesses, its investigation “will focus on CSX’s carmen safety procedure training and awareness.”
That’s similar to a warning the Federal Railroad Administration issued last week when it urged all railroads to remind workers that they should be aware that a train can move down a track at any time. CSX also issued an advisory to its workers a day after Anderson died to emphasize “situational awareness” whenever working near the tracks.
CSX spokesman Bryan Tucker said the railroad isn’t planning any changes to its remote control operations after Anderson’s death because the worker at the controls of those locomotives was following all federal and CSX rules at the time.
The NTSB said the remote control operator was “positioned on the lower ladder on the west side of the trailing locomotive,” so it’s unlikely the operator could see Anderson approaching the tracks from the east side. Anderson had parked his truck nearby with another carmen shortly before 3:30 a.m. to lock a switch that controls access to one of the tracks before inspecting railcars. The second worker didn’t see Anderson get hit.
The locomotives were moving at 10 mph when they struck Anderson, so the remote control operator may not have been able to stop them in time even if Anderson had been seen. He or she wasn’t stationed at the front of the locomotives and also was working alone — as opposed to working in tandem with another person, something that was routine when remote control operations began nearly 20 years ago.
Guidelines the FRA first issued in 2005 for remote control trains call for the operator to either be stationed somewhere aboard the train or on the ground nearby, but they don’t dictate exactly where operators have to be. The rules don’t require two people to be involved to provide a second set of eyes on where a train is moving, so single-person operations have become common in and around railyards.
The guidelines do urge the railroads to make sure remote control trains don’t go faster than 15 mph and to take other precautions about how long or heavy the trains are. But regulations allow the railroads to decide many of the details.
Remote control train operators might have only a month or two of training before taking the controls, although the length of training varies by railroad. By comparison, an engineer usually has several years of experience with a railroad before undergoing months of training to learn how to operate a train.
“They are the least-experienced people that are handling these trains,” Eddie Hall, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen union, said of remote control railyard operators.
Hall and other BLET officials believe the railroads are “gambling with safety” with the way they use remote control trains both inside and outside of railyards. The union is especially concerned about railroads using remote control trains farther and farther outside of railyards — as much as a couple miles — to move trains with dozens of cars, including some carrying hazardous materials.
Safety statistics on railroad crashes are unclear because Federal Railroad Administration reports don’t break out those involving remote control trains from incidents involving trains operated by engineers and conductors.
Grissom said his union has had three members die in incidents involving remote control trains since 2015. He said Anderson’s death, combined with fiery derailments that have happened across the country this year, reinforce the need for stronger railroad safety regulations.
Members of Congress did propose rail safety legislation after the February Norfolk Southern derailment that prompted the evacuation of much of East Palestine in eastern Ohio. But the bill has yet to get a vote in the full Senate. In the House, lawmakers want to wait until the full NTSB report on the derailment is completed sometime next year.
Federal regulators have issued several safety advisories since that derailment, and urged the railroads to make changes.