Who’s got the remote?

ST. LOUIS — Two unions and the nation’s six largest rail carriers are wrangling over new technology in switching yards, reports the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

The unions aren’t protesting the introduction of the technology. They’re squabbling over who gets to hold the remote control. The device, contained in what’s known as a belt pack that includes a shoulder harness, operates a computer onboard a locomotive.

Factions of the BLE including the California State Legislative Board are declaring that the use of Remote Control Technology is unsafe to the employees, the public and the environment. To use unqualified personnel with very limited training to run the Remotes exacerbates the hazards exponentially.

By pushing buttons, the operator can start the locomotive, control its speed, stop the train and sound the horn – all while in the rail yard.

The carriers would have everyone believe that the technology will not proceed outside the nations rail yards. In reality, this technology proceeds commonly out on the main lines and proceeds through towns and over crossings.

Canadian railroads have used some form of the technology for nearly 10 years. Carriers began introducing remote control in U.S. rail yards in 2002, after the Federal Railway Administration approved its use and set certification guidelines for operators.

The guidelines are weak and don’t have the force of law. hence, the carriers are making the rules up as they go and the FRA is just riding along with it!

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers says running locomotives is its job, whether it’s by pushing a button on a remote-control device or by pulling a lever inside the cab. But the United Transportation Union and the railroads negotiated an agreement in 2001 that hands the controls to switchmen or supervisors in the yards. The union and carriers argue that onboard computers have replaced the engineers and that the remote control unit is simply a communications device. Because the switchman gives commands to the engineer while a locomotive is in the yard, the carriers and the UTU contend that operating the remote control falls under jurisdiction of yard employees.

And they’re right, it does fall under the jurisdiction of yard employees…specifically, Yard Engineers!

Representatives of the unions and the carriers will meet with an arbitrator Monday in Atlanta to learn the results of a hearing held in November.

Analysts have estimated that the technology might save the industry as much as $250 million a year, mostly through reduced labor costs. It also would mean fewer accidents, they say.

Accident statistics are continually hidden and tweaked by the carriers. These devices cost $150,000 per unit. The devices need to be maintained at another cost, which thus far is unaccounted for. The Electricians’ Union has no idea how to maintain these things, hence we could have a RCO meltdown just from a maintenance perspective.

I ask you this…if the carriers are saving money on reduced labor costs, and they have guaranteed that the Locomotive Engineers will not lose their employment, where is the savings coming from?

Hundreds of jobs seem at stake, in addition to representing workers who use advanced technology. The issue echoes the jurisdictional fight that was at the heart of a dispute last fall between West Coast port managers and the dockworkers union. The dispute closed those ports for 10 days.

“Why the railroads would choose to de-skill a position and deny people the work they spent a lot of money training them for, I can’t figure it out,” said Don M. Hahs, president of the railroad engineers union.

While the rail companies portray the dispute as a representation matter, the engineers union has raised safety questions in a public-opinion campaign. The union says the equipment is not so sophisticated that it can replace an experienced engineer.

Shreveport and Baton Rouge, La., and Detroit have passed nonbinding resolutions calling for limits on the use of remote technology, especially in areas where a locomotive would cross a public road or would handle rail cars containing hazardous materials.

This needs to happen in all cities where this technology does or will exist!

Such limitations “sound good politically, but in the real world, they’re not an issue,” said John Bromley, a spokesman for Union Pacific Railroad Co., the largest of the six carriers. The others are Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Co., Consolidated Rail Corp. (Conrail), CSX Transportation Inc., Kansas City Southern Railway Co. and Norfolk Southern Railway Co. Norfolk Southern is the only carrier using the technology in the St. Louis area. Union Pacific plans to introduce it here.

John Bromley is a master of saying nothing. There is a haz-mat accident in this country every nine days on average. To say that this is not an issue shows the lack of respect and arrogance of this nations largest railroad carrier. After all, why would they admit any danger to the public. It would be counterproductive!

Much of the jurisdictional argument is based on labor agreements, arbitrations and court cases. With individual exceptions, workers are not likely to lose their jobs, the carriers say. In fact, the companies are struggling with a national shortage of engineers, caused by a wave of retirements after federal law eased eligibility rules. Most engineers who would lose switching-yard jobs would find road jobs waiting, railroad spokesmen said. Many carriers are promoting, training and hiring to get more engineers to operate trains on the road.

The Engineers who work yard jobs usually have the highest seniority and work these jobs so that they can have the days off, family life, semblance of order to their lives and alleviation of the endless hours that the road Engineers are currently forced to work.

Engineers and conductors are at the top of a progressive career ladder, with entry-level switchmen on the bottom. Engineers start as switchmen and retain their seniority. All switchmen are required to train to become engineers.

Safety first

The companies say the new technology is safer and more efficient. There’s less chance of accidents caused by communication problems because the locomotive operator and the switchman would be the same person. And the same work can be done by fewer people, eliminating one person from two- or three-person crews.

The truth is that the carriers use two people on these jobs. The Operator of the “Beltpack” and another switchman. On occasion, railroads like the UPRR have used a third person to sit in the very seat the Engineer used to sit in to protect the moves over crossings and blow the whistle while ringing the bell. There is no labor savings under these circumstances.

Communication problems are “catch-all” categories the railroads use anytime they can’t pinpoint the cause of an accident.Even if they can, the use of the fault category “Communication Problems” minimizes or eliminates the blame which could be placed on the railroad. These statistics hurt their chances on gaining such national safety awards as the Harriman Award. All carriers aspire to gain this one! To the point of manipulating their safety/accident statistics.

Communication problems will still exist anytime there are other crewmembers or other jobs working in the same area! Only, this time the rear switchman will be talking to the Remote Control Operator at the other end of the train via radio as opposed to talking to the Locomotive Engineer on the other end via radio…nothing has changed!

Preliminary data from CSX, one of the rail lines, indicate that reportable and minor accidents have been cut 48 percent in rail yards where remote technology is used, compared with yards operated conventionally, said Gary Sease, a company spokesman. CSX began using the technology in February, and it has installed it at 70 locations. That includes Chicago but not East St. Louis, the railway’s western terminus.

In reality, their productivity is down at least 48% in these same areas. This is another manipulation of the statistics, filled with bold safety pronouncements with hidden realities. As soon as the FRA creates the regulations which will then have the force of law, the carrier officers will alter and bend the safety rules to bring their productivity back up to speed…just as they are doing now.

Bromley, of Union Pacific, said his company also has seen a reduction in cargo damage because remote-controlled locomotives go slower when coupling cars, so the contents get less banged about.

If Bromley knew anything about switching operations, the 10 mph max the RCO jobs are restricted from exceeding is plenty fast. Sure, the “Beltpack” can be placed in a 2 mph speed during coupling, but again if productivity is prominent, this safety feature will remain unutilized. This is another “pie-in-the-sky” offering by the carrier which wants this technology so bad it can taste it. I work switch engines on occasion, and I can assure you that I move safer and even slower when coupling cars as do my colleagues.

Hard data on safety comparisons from an independent source are difficult to find. The carriers argue that the technology has been tested thoroughly in Canada. But the major user there, Canadian National, makes and sells the remote devices.

Hence, the “fox is watching the henhouse”!

Furthermore, not all U.S. carriers plan to use all the technology typically found in Canadian rail yards. The difference, the engineers union says, is in technology designed to “protect the point,” the front of a forward-moving train or the back end of a train traveling in reverse. Engineers and yard workers in conventional teams protect the point by looking and listening inside the locomotive cab and on the ground and communicating by radios.

In some yards with remote technology, sensors on the tracks and sometimes on the switches take over some of that function. But while all U.S. carriers seek to reduce the number of people on a switching crew, not all the carriers are replacing those workers with point-protection technology.

Safety is for sale, based on the carriers actions!

Norfolk Southern and CSX use only the remote device and the onboard computer. Union Pacific is the only U.S. carrier, Bromley said, to use a full system of track sensors, additional signaling to alert one train about the proximity of another and video cameras at certain road crossings.

The UPRR wants this technology so bad that it is “pulling out all the stops” and spending whatever it takes to have everyone go along with their wishes. I wonder who will pay for all this in the long run?

Canadian National pioneered the technology in Canada. But it hasn’t put any of the technology into place in its U.S. yards.

E. Hunter Harrison, CEO of CN doesn’t like this technology. Why do the US carriers persist? A hidden agenda perhaps?

In the carrier’s Canadian operations, spokesman Jack Burke said, the equipment differs in the two kinds of switching yards. In “hump yards,” locomotives push cars to the top of an incline, and workers use gravity on the other side to move the cars through switches and to sort them onto the right tracks. Canadian National uses sensors known as transponders to control speed and to prevent cars and locomotives from overriding a stop. In “flat yards,” locomotive power alone pushes and pulls cars around. There, when a locomotive encounters a corner or a curve that blocks the remote operator’s view, Canadian National workers hop back in the cab and operate the conventional controls, Burke said.

So, the engineers union says, someone still needs to be there to drive the train.

US regulations require that a federally licensed, trained and certified Locomotive Engineer handle the controls of any train. This whole Remote Control issue is a way the carriers are attempting to circumvent the rules.

From the arbitration briefs

Sophisticated technology being introduced into U.S. rail yards is “a computerized application of remote locomotive control that eliminates the need for an engineer.”
National Railway Conference, representing the nation’s six largest rail carriers

This statement summarizes where the carriers of the United States are going…elimination of the Locomotive Engineer won’t stop with yard jobs.

Characterizing the technology as replacing engineers with computers is “pure hoax. These microprocessors have not assumed the engineer’s judgments, duties or responsibilities necessary to operate the locomotive – all that has been transferred to the remote-control operator.”

Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers

The agreement negotiated between the carriers and the union representing switchmen and other rail-yard workers to allow them to operate the remote technology “trumps (the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers’) lame claim of an implied agreement.” United Transportation Union

This statement comes from an organization who will do anything to stay in existence…including selling out their own membership as they have done over and over again in the past. They have a habit of giving the carriers everything they want, including “blank check” contracts in order to remain the carrier’s “fair haired go-to union organization”.

(The world needs to know the truth…how about joining me?)

(Statements from Tim Smith, Chairman CSLB/BLE)

Thursday, January 02, 2003

© 2003 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers