Some Linwood workers question safety of remote train technology
By Shavonne Potts
LINWOOD — When Norfolk Southern began putting new remote control technology in place in its rail yard, the company promised a safer environment.
But local engineers and conductors who work there say the new remote control device is taking away eyes and ears that could protect them against safety hazards.
The company decided to use remote control devices in engines to move freight cars between trains in the large switching yard north of the Yadkin River. Previously, an engineer guided each locomotive.
Though not new to other switching yards, it is new to this area.
John Underwood, a Norfolk Southern conductor for five years, says that newer technology doesn’t mean it’s better.
Underwood said the “safer” technology is “taking an extra set of eyes away from a dangerous system.”
He added that the railway system requires the person operating between the freight cars to really focus “because one wrong move and someone could be killed.”
Basics of the yard
Linwood is a classification yard, meaning the main function is to sort and rearrange freight cars for trains going different places.
The conductor on the train or foreman on a yard engine is responsible for the paperwork of the train. Essentially, that person decides what cars to move when and how to move them.
The engineer is responsible for safely operating the locomotive or train, essentially serving as the train’s eyes.
The engineer, Underwood explains, must double-check the route or line.
“You look for any people on the track, and you look for broken rails,” he says.
Underwood explained that the engineer and conductor are in constant radio communication with a third person, the pullout utility conductor, who provides rail assignments.
Usually, about 20 to 30 cars are coupled at one time, he says, though that number can reach as high as 50.
With the new technology, an engineer walks beside the train and uses a small control device in a belt pack that relays signals to a microprocessor aboard the locomotive.
Underwood explained that a remote control operator cannot see if 30 to 50 cars are attached.
Norfolk Southern spokes-man Robin Chapman has said the new technology does not pose any greater hazards than it would if a person were operating the locomotive.
Chapman emphasizes the built-in fail-safes. For instance, if the remote control belt tilts at more than a 45-degree angle from the vertical position for more than a second, indicating the possibility that the operator has fallen, the unit sends a signal to automatically stop the train.
Ken Hinson, a 16-year engineer, says, “It’s outrageous” that the company would say the new technology is safer. Like any any other equipment, the remote control could fail, he said.
“It’s about the dollar. The bottom line is to save money,” he said.
Norfolk-Southern’s Chapman said the remote control system does save operating costs, but he could not provide specific numbers.
Underwood agrees with Hinson: “To save a few dollars, they’ll throw all the safety things they’ve taught us out the window.”
He said freight cars sometimes carry hazardous materials that pose a risk to those who operate the locomotive.
“These are things that can’t be hauled on the roads. It’s hazardous, radioactive materials. If one of those turns over with the remote control, there’s more of a chance of someone getting hurt or killed,” Underwood says.
Other conductors and engineers expressed the same concerns through letters and e-mails to the Post, saying the remote control devices aren’t necessarily safer.
“It goes against every safety rule they have,” one conductor said.
Another conductor added, “This makes for a more stressful and accident-prone work environment by opening up many doors for human error due to the elimination of the ‘double-check’ factor.”
In a 2006 final report on the safety of remote control locomotive operations, the Federal Railroad Administration found that where human factors are concerned, remote control locomotive accident rates overall are higher than conventional operations.
The report says that although operator error caused a higher accident rate for remotely controlled locomotives, these results appear to show that the same human errors occur during both types of operations.
The report recommended studying the risks of:
* “Task overload” for the person operating the remote control, which could lead to operators losing overall awareness of what was happening around them.
* A combination of inadequate training, preparation and experience for the operators.
* Accidental activation of the belt pack or remote control device.
The most recent accident involving human error and a remote control device came in December in Manlius, N.Y., according to the Federal Railroad Administration report.
In that case, rail cars being moved by a remote control locomotive struck a truck backing up over a yard grade crossing. The truck driver, a railroad employee, was killed.
The Federal Railroad Administration said the remote control operator “did not maintain continuous supervision of the movement, resulting in a fatal accident instead of a minor incident.”
The report also cites “a radio communications failure” because other employees attempted unsuccessfully to notify the operator to stop.
Although no accidents have been reported in the Linwood Yard, conductors and engineers believe they are coming.
“The company is very safety conscious. The rule book is larger than our phone book. This remote control goes against what we’ve been told,” one conductor said.
Chapman, the Norfolk Southern spokesman, said remote control operators go through a two-week, 80-hour training course. The hours are split between the classroom and the field. The Federal Railroad Administration has determined that this is a sufficient amount of training time for the type of limited operations they perform, he said.
An experienced engineer can feel the weight of the cars behind him, Underwood says.
“He can tell you how much weight by the feel. A remote control doesn’t have a feel for the cars,” he said.
As to the new technology resulting in layoffs, Hinson said he’s seen workers furloughed, leaving room for the company to call those people back. But he said it doesn’t help if there’s no job to come back to.
Chapman admits some engineer yard jobs have been eliminated, but he said the engineers who held those jobs have been reassigned to road jobs.
“They are running trains instead of working the yard,” he said.
Chapman said no one has been laid off at the Linwood Yard. “We consciously implement remote control locomotives at each specific location in a way that does not result in layoffs,” he said.
Underwood disagrees, saying those who will most likely be the first to go are those called the extra board.
Those employees usually work part-time and fill in when a senior person needs to take a vacation, sick or personal day.
“We knew jobs would be lost. They’ve been talking about it for awhile,” Underwood said.
So why don’t the unions step in? Underwood said both the United Transportation Union and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen “are opposed to it, but essentially, their hands are tied.”
According to a 2003 letter from the national legislative director of the United Transportation Union, the two unions disagreed about which one would have the rights to the jobs involving the remote-control technology. After an arbitration process, United was awarded the work.
When the new technology was first introduced, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers signed a collective bargaining agreement that permitted their members to operate remote-control locomotives.
However, in recent years the unions have been lobbying to adopt remote-control safety resolutions. They want the Federal Railroad Administration to develop regulations for the use of remote controlled locomotives. According to their Web site, they want to be assured those regulations require people have the highest level of skill and qualification to operate the new devices.
Hinson says he and others who oppose the new technology are not “trying to go after the company.”
As an engineer, he’s always looking for potential dangers on the track, especially since the engineers at the Linwood Yard handle all types of chemicals, he says.
Hinson calls the remote control devices “an unacceptable risk.”
It’s been nearly four weeks since the new technology was implemented at the Linwood Yard and fewer than a dozen people have been trained to use the device.
Contact Shavonne Potts at 704-797-4253 or firstname.lastname@example.org.