McLaughlin said mandating a number of crew members could deter automation and “lock in the possibility of human error.”
A blog post by Elliott Long, senior economic policy analyst at the Progressive Policy Institute, noted that the size of rail freight crews has steadily declined in the United States, from teams of five in the 1970s to the current industry standard of two. During the same period, accident rates have fallen by more than 80% thanks to rail investments and technological advances crucial to improving the safety record.
But locking down crew numbers has long been a goal of unions representing railway workers, who have been lobbying for at least five years at state and federal levels to demand that all freight trains operate with two people in the cab. There are approximately 40,000 rail freight operators, and the reduction in crew requirements would give the railways the flexibility to redeploy employees elsewhere.
SMART, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transport Workers, declined to comment for this article. However, they are counting on the historic relationship between Democrats and unions to make their plans a reality. Then-presidential candidate Joe Biden recorded a video last year promising unions he would back the fight.
This fight, however, is a “boring little glitch” that masks the biggest threat to the rail industry, a longtime analyst said.