New Rule Requires Two Crew Members Aboard Freight Trains

April 5, 2024
Rail safety was thrust to the forefront after the train derailment last February in East Palestine, OH.

Jonathan D. Salant

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


Apr. 3—WASHINGTON — Freight railroads would be required to have two crew members aboard in most cases under a new rule announced Tuesday in response to the Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.

The new rule sets federal standards for staffing freight trains and requires railroads to seek permission from the Federal Railroad Administration to run trains with a single employee. That process also would allow communities and railroad workers to weigh in before a final decision is made.

"Common sense tells us that large freight trains, some of which can be over 3 miles long, should have at least two crew members on board — and now there's a federal regulation in place to ensure trains are safely staffed," U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said. "This rule requiring safe train crew sizes is long overdue, and we are proud to deliver this change that will make workers, passengers, and communities safer."

Most trains — including the one that derailed in East Palestine — run with at least two-person crews, but the rule would prevent railroads from scaling back their staffing. Amit Bose, head of the Federal Railroad Administration, said the regulation is "making sure what's in place remains. Without the rule, they could do one-person right now."

The railroad industry criticized the rule.

"FRA is doubling down on an unfounded and unnecessary regulation that has no proven connection to rail safety," said Ian Jeffries, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads. "Instead of prioritizing data-backed solutions to build a safer future for rail, FRA is looking to the past and upending the collective bargaining process. Railroads are committed to working with our union counterparts and policymakers to build on this momentum and advance proven solutions that meaningfully advance safety. Unfortunately, the crew size rule takes the industry in the exact opposite direction."

The association said casualty rates for employees working on the largest railroads and accident rates have dropped over the past two decades.

But unions welcomed the new regulations.

"As trains, many carrying hazardous material, have grown longer, crews should not be getting smaller," said Eddie Hall, national president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. "I personally have operated freight trains that stretched over 3 miles in length."

Mr. Buttigieg said the Norfolk Southern derailment on Feb. 3, 2023, provided a new boost to the agency's rail safety efforts.

" East Palestine refocused the entire country on rail safety and that led to our three-way push — pushing ourselves to get good rules and regulations and inspections out, pushing the industry to behave better, and pushing Congress, which we're still doing right now, to get this Railway Safety Act done," Mr. Buttigieg told reporters following a news conference with union members where he announced the new staffing rule.

A requirement that two crew members be on board freight trains operated by large carriers remains a point of contention in bipartisan legislation introduced after the Norfolk Southern train derailed near the Pennsylvania border. The subsequent release of the toxic chemical vinyl chloride raised fears of contamination in Beaver County, leaving residents afraid to drink the water and farmers saying customers were afraid to buy meat from them.

The bill by U.S. Sens. Bob Casey and John Fetterman, D- Pa.; Sherrod Brown, D- Ohio; and J.D. Vance, R- Ohio; and U.S. Rep. Chris Deluzio, D- Aspinwall, would require two-person crews on trains carrying toxic chemicals like the vinyl chloride aboard the East Palestine train.

"We need to pass our bipartisan Railway Safety Act to ensure rail companies are held accountable and do more to keep workers and communities safe," Mr. Fetterman said on X.

And Mr. Deluzio said on X that two-person "minimum staffing is a key tool to better protect rail workers & the communities that run along railroad tracks." He said the administration was "holding big railroads accountable & always putting workers & public safety first with this important rule."

But the freight industry and enough Senate Republicans balked at the proposed regulations in the bill — which also would increase the maximum penalty for violating rail safety laws from $100,000 to $10 million — to hold up passage in the Senate after the Commerce Committee approved the measure in May 2023.

Last month, House Democrats held a hearing to push for the legislation's passage. That came after Mr. Buttigieg called out the railroad industry for blocking the safety bill.

Mr. Buttigieg said the rule and the legislation would establish uniform standards for railroads, rather than leaving it to each state.

Legislation requiring two-person crews on major freight railroads in Pennsylvania already has passed the state House, and the bill's sponsor, state Rep. Rob Matzie, D- Beaver, welcomed the new federal rule.

"Safe staffing on trains is good for public safety, especially when we're still seeing more than 1,700 derailments a year and living with the impacts of accidents like East Palestine and the derailment in the Lehigh Valley a few weeks ago," Mr. Matzie said. "Safer railroads are good for citizens, good for businesses, and, frankly, good for the railroads themselves when the people know those railroads are putting safety first."

He said he would continue to work to get the state bill into law. The measure would also limit how long trains can block grade crossings, prohibit trains longer than 8,500 feet (about 1.6 miles long), and require the Public Utility Commission and state Transportation Department to establish standards for reporting and tracking hazardous materials, making that information available to first responders.

The Federal Railroad Administration said it had received more than 13,500 comments on the federal rule, almost all of them in favor of it.

"The volume of comments from rail workers and their families, as well as comments from the general public impacted by long trains and other issues, raised legitimate safety concerns that railroads, on their own, have not been able to adequately address," Mr. Bose said. "Today's final rule acknowledges the important role both crew members play in the safe operations of trains, and it comes at a time when the latest annual data reflects some troubling trends that demonstrate the need to improve safety."



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The new rule arrives more than a year after a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, spilling hazardous chemicals.