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Tentative deal would allow one-person crew on some BNSF trains

FARGO – BNSF has struck a tentative agreement with a union that would allow one-person train crews on certain routes if a monitoring system is in use.

The proposed agreement, which is at odds with the national union’s staunch support of two-person crews, also reportedly conflicts with a possible federal rule that would require two crew members aboard freight trains carrying crude oil.

According to BNSF, the tentative agreement allowing a one-person crew would not apply to large trains carrying hazardous cargo, including crude oil and ethanol.

“BNSF has special handling procedures and operating rules for hazardous materials including loaded crude unit trains, which, among other things, require two people in the locomotive,” BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said Friday. “That would not change under the agreement.”

The railroad’s agreement with the Transportation Division of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Union, SMART, would apply to about 60 percent of BNSF’s system.

That includes the former Northern Pacific Railroad line, which runs through Fargo-Moorhead from St. Paul to Seattle, and switching yards from the former Great Northern Railroad, which also runs through the metro area and region.

A spokesman for SMART, formerly the United Transportation Union, said regional divisions have their own autonomy, but the national union strongly backs a new proposed federal regulation to require two-person train crews.

“We are heavily behind that and support it 100 percent,” said Robert Zanath, a spokesman in New York for SMART’s Transportation Division. “Our mantra more or less is the only safe train operation is a two-member train operation.”

Zanath said he could not comment on the specifics of the tentative deal, however, and referred questions to Randy Knutson, a regional SMART chairman. Knutson was traveling Friday and unavailable for comment.

BNSF’s tentative agreement would allow engineers to operate freight trains with a remotely based “master conductor,” using monitoring technology called positive train control, instead of a conventional conductor onboard the train.

“The agreement will enhance safety by providing a more predictable work schedule with assigned on-duty times and specific territories for master conductors to monitor and assist as necessary,” BNSF said in a statement Friday.

The issue of minimum train crew staffing – and tank-car standards – have been elevated in the past year following catastrophic train derailments involving Bakken crude oil from North Dakota.

The fiery disasters included a derailment a year ago in Quebec that killed 47 people and leveled much of the downtown of a resort town. On Dec. 30, a collision of two trains west of Casselton ruptured tankers that spilled 475,000 gallons.

In April, the Federal Railroad Administration announced that it would issue a proposed rule on minimum train crew size. That proposal was one of a number of federal measures that also include more stringent standards for tanker cars.

“We believe that safety is enhanced with the use of a multiple person crew – safety dictates that you never allow a single point of failure,” FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo said in a statement announcing the proposed rule would be coming.

“FRA continues to believe that the highest level of safety is ensured with the use of a multiple person crew,” administration spokesman Mike England said Friday in a statement.

The FRA cannot discuss details of the crew staff rule while it is under development, but the FRA said it is “likely to provide a path forward on emerging technologies like PTC” – positive train control, using a master control – “provided we can ensure the public an equivalent or superior level of safety.”

England added: “We look forward to learning more about the BNSF/UTU proposal and how it supports the intent of our rule-making – protecting the public.”

BNSF’s tentative agreement with SMART was first reported Thursday by Railway Age, an industry publication that called it a “gutsy, proactive, and far-sighted collaboration” that could serve as a model for other major railroads and unions.

The agreement comes as “union efforts to legislate or impose by regulation mandatory two-person crews are failing,” according to Railway Age.

The mounting volume of Bakken crude oil hauled by freight trains has brought a sharper regulatory focus on railroad safety issues.

Bakken crude rail shipments increased from fewer than 100,000 barrels a day in 2010 to 800,000 barrels a day last year. On average, 40 BNSF trains, each about a mile long and hauling 3 million gallons of crude oil, pass through Cass County each week, according to documents the company recently released by the state under a new federal requirement.

North Dakota regulators plan to bring a proposal next year to lawmakers for a state-run railroad inspection program aimed at better monitoring heavy crude rail traffic through the state.

Patrick Springer

Patrick Springer first joined the reporting staff of The Forum in 1985. He can be reached by calling 701-241-5522. Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to

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