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Federal agency mandates train crew weeks after Virginia governor vetoes bill

Railroad tracks run through the forest
Crixell Matthews
VPM News File
Railroad tracks run nearby the planned James River Branch Trail.

Though the rule is not federal law, it will apply to freight trains on U.S. railways.

Should freight trains — which can stretch up to 3 miles in length — have more than one crewmember? That was the gist behind a recent General Assembly bill that made it to Gov. Glenn Youngkin in early March. It was also one of the eight bills Youngkin vetoed just before the regular session ended.

SB 143, carried by state Sen. Jennifer Carroll Foy (D–Woodbridge), would’ve required two qualified individuals on all trains, locomotives or light engines used in connection with moving freight. (Like many pieces of legislation, an identical version was introduced in the House of Delegates.)

If passed, SB 143/HB 385 would have fined railroad companies up to $2,000 for first-time violations. For a second or third violation, fines would have climbed to $10,000.

At the time, Youngkin said while he supports improving safety within the rail industry, mandating crew sizes “is a blunt regulatory tool” that stifles railroads and unions to negotiate staffing through collective bargaining.

“The proposed methods appear premature and lack the necessary nuance required for effective regulation. A comprehensive strategy is best achieved through the established framework of the federal government's ongoing rulemaking process,” Youngkin wrote in his veto statement.

But unlike many of the governor’s vetoes, the federal government has acted with a new regulation of its own — yes, most freight trains should have at least two crewmembers during operation.

The Department of Transportation released the final rule on April 2, weeks after Youngkin’s veto. At its core, it states that by mandating crew staffing levels at the federal level, the ruling will ensure both freight and passenger rail operations are consistent throughout the states.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the ruling on crewmember size is just common sense.

“And now there’s a federal regulation in place to ensure trains are safely staffed,” he said.

That makes sense to Mark Wallace, first national vice president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen: “When they announced the regulation from FRA, part of [it] was because there was a patchwork of state laws. … And in order to eliminate the difficulties of trying to either adhere to different rules based on the state regulations, they thought it was the proper thing to do.”

Prior to FHA’s announcement, 11 states, including New York, Ohio and Kansas, had passed legislation for the requirement, according to the trade publication Freight Waves.

Wallace said safety advancements in train technology over the last 20 years has also added more work for engineers.

“The engineers are a lot of times hyper-focused on the controls, and what's happening not only on the front of the train, but what's happening in the middle and on the rear of the train. It's very helpful, and we think, necessary to have a second crew person on the train with us,” Wallace said.

The FRA tried to mandate crewmember numbers in 2022, according to The New York Times. The issue got even more attention in 2023 after a freight train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. That Norfolk Southern train had three crew members on board guiding 38 cars — 11 of which held hazardous materials, the NYT reported.

After the governor’s veto in early March, Carroll Foy released a statement similar to Buttigieg’s April comments.

“At its core, this policy is a common sense public safety and service measure. Although there are over 1,000 train derailments a year, those at the top of the railway industry have shown that they are willing to put profits before people, and it is up to us to stop the bleeding,” she wrote.

When asked about the April 2 federal ruling, Press Secretary Christian Martinez said the governor’s position on the vetoed bills hadn’t changed.

“The rule makes it crystal clear that this is a federal issue. Unfortunately, this rule is nearly as bad as the bills he vetoed: government mandates inhibit the development and implementation of technology, impose constraints on our supply chain, and drive up costs on consumers and increase inflation,” Martinez wrote via email.

The Association of American Railroads, a national trade group, also opposes the federal rule. It argued that the vast majority of train derailments happen in rail yards, “where the average train speed is about five MPH — not on mainline track running across the country.”

In a statement on the federal rule, AAR said the federal government is overreaching and is making rules despite a lack of evidence connecting crew size to rail safety. It also echoed Youngkin’s statements about how staffing and crew size policies have been managed through the collective bargaining process.

Wallace, from the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, said the new guideline won’t hamper collective bargaining.

“We're the oldest labor union in North America, the first labor union in 1863, the same year as the Civil War,” said Wallace. “We've seen many technological advances over 160 years. And we've been able to navigate those through the collective bargaining process, and through regulation.”

He also said the next step for BLET is to enshrine the ruling into federal law.

A U.S. Congress bill called the Railway Safety Act by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D–Ohio) was introduced in March 2023. In part, it would require the DOT to issue safety regulations mandating train companies shipping hazardous materials adhere to certain train lengths and require a minimum two-person crew.

Brown’s legislation has had no movement since December.

Ian M. Stewart is the transportation reporter and fill-in anchor for VPM News.
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