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Railroad unions win major decision on train crew sizes

Washington State AG Bob Ferguson: ‘This decision makes workers safer, residents safer and will ensure our environment remains clean and healthy’


SEATTLE (Feb. 25, 2021) — In a major victory for unions representing railroad workers, a federal court of appeals ruled Tuesday that the Trump administration violated the law when it attempted to override state regulations governing the number of crewmembers needed to safely operate a train.

Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, along with two other states and two national unions — the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers-Transportation Division (SMART-TD) and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) — brought the challenge in 2019 after the Trump administration published its deregulatory rule without any notice, and in the wake of a catastrophic and deadly derailment involving a crude-oil train staffed by only one crewmember.

Tuesday’s decision of a three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit undoes the Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) unlawful action, which would have allowed railroads to operate trains with only one crewmember, despite widespread safety concerns and the limitations of automation technology. The Ninth Circuit ruled that FRA’s deregulatory order was “arbitrary and capricious,” taking particular note that the assertions by FRA and the rail carriers that reducing the number of crew members in the cab to one person could improve safety “did not withstand scrutiny” and “was lacking.” The court also chided the FRA for basing its negative preemption decision on “an economic rationale” instead of what is its main obligation — safety.

SMART-TD President Jeremy R. Ferguson and BLET President Dennis R. Pierce released this statement regarding the decision:

“First, we thank the more than 1,500 BLET and SMART–TD members who took the time to comment on the need for two-person crews, because you have made a difference. We also congratulate the judges in this case for recognizing the former Administrator overstepped his bounds, and we look ahead to working with the FRA when crew size is again considered on a national level by the agency as a matter of public and operational safety. We assert, and will continue to assert, that having two sets of eyes and two people working in concert together with any improvements in technology, will be the best way to serve public safety and to continue the effective and efficient movement of our nation’s railroads.”

As a result of the ruling, states may once again adopt and enforce laws requiring a minimum number of crewmembers to ensure safe train travel. That includes a Washington state law, passed in June 2020 with the support of SMART-TD and BLET, that requires most freight and passenger trains traveling through the state to have at least two crewmembers aboard. That legislative effort, led by Rep. Marcus Riccelli (D-Spokane) and Sen. Patty Kuderer (D-Bellevue), capped a seven-year struggle by railroad workers to secure safe staffing levels for an industry where employee fatigue and minor human error can lead to catastrophic derailments.

“This decision is a win for rail workers up and down the west coast, and for every community they pass through,” said Herb Krohn, SMART-TD’s Washington State Legislative Director. “The court has made clear that state laws mandating minimum-size train crews, such as the one Washington passed last year, are appropriate and are not pre-empted by federal law.”

“The Trump administration unlawfully attempted to impose a national one-person crew standard that jeopardizes our environment and Washingtonians’ safety,” Ferguson said in a press release. “We took the federal government to court to safeguard our states’ ability to protect our residents and our environment — and the court vacated this illegal rule. This decision makes workers safer, residents safer and will ensure our environment remains clean and healthy.”

The railroad unions thanked Ferguson for his strong advocacy on behalf of their members.

“Attorney General Ferguson and his tireless staff secured a win for the working men and women of Washington this week, which will keep us all safer,” said Shahraim C. Allen, Legislative Chairman of BLET – Washington State. “We believe that Washington’s action on this critical issue, and the legal precedent that has now been set, should be seen by other states as proof that progress is coming.”

A representative for the Association of American Railroads, which was a party to the suit, said the railroad companies are “frustrated and perplexed” by the decision and are “evaluating next steps.”

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