Monday's fiery oil train crash in West Virginia was the latest in a string of explosive wrecks that have sparked fears about America's surge in oil train traffic. And soon those trains may be rumbling through populated areas with just a single person at the controls, a change that railroad workers say presents an unacceptable risk.
Railroads have proposed eliminating the job of on-board conductor on most trains, leaving just an engineer aboard. The workers argue that one-person crews will mean more out-of-control trains, like the runaway that caused the Lac-Mégantic disaster in 2013. An oil train rolled downhill in the tiny Quebec town and exploded, killing 47 people. The company that owned the train had just downsized to a one-man crew, and that engineer failed to set the brakes properly, according to regulators.
Railroad executives counter that a new GPS-based braking system—required by Congress by the end of this year—will be enough to blunt that risk. But railroad workers, environmental groups, and people in the communities along the tracks strongly disagree.
"It's a recipe for disaster," said Mark Voelker, a switchman for BNSF Railway and an organizer for the SMART union, which represents conductors nationwide.
"These are mile-long trains carrying every kind of hazardous material you can think of through communities," said Jen Wallis, another BNSF employee and founder of a caucus with members from 13 different railroad unions. "Why would you compromise the safe passage of these trains for profit?"
In January, regulators at the Federal Railroad Administration proposed a rule that would make two-man crews mandatory. The administration ha
"These are mile-long trains carrying every kind of hazardous material you can think of through communities."'
s not yet signed off on the rule, however, and the industry is resisting. In public and behind the scenes, the railroads have lobbied against the proposal, and for the freedom to run trains with one worker. There is no set date by which the rule becomes effective or is rejected.
Meanwhile, the nation's five major railroads are negotiating a new contract with the conductors and engineers, and are asking to be allowed to use one-man crews. Conductors would monitor trains remotely instead of climbing aboard.
In a statement, BNSF, which handles the majority of the U.S. oil shipped by rail, said it was investing in conductors, not cutting them. "The current [contract] rules call for two-man crews so ensuring we are appropriately staffed to operate trains is vitally important," said Roxanne Butler, BNSF's director of media relations.
Butler acknowledged the railroad's interest in a one-person crew contract. But she referred questions about why and whether the railroads have lobbied against the proposed federal requirement for two crew members to the Association of American Railroads (AAR), an industry group.
Ed Greenberg, an AAR spokesperson, said that safety is the industry's number one concern, but there is no proof that two-person crews actually contribute to fewer accidents.
"It is the AAR's position there is no data that justifies a regulatory requirement regarding crew size," he said in a statement to NBC News.
After World War II there were seven people on almost every freight train, including four brakemen and a fireman. More recently, the major rail lines switched to two-person crews, like pilots in a cockpit. There's an engineer who drives the locomotive and a conductor who manages the long line of cars.
Last month NBC News got a first-hand look at what it's like to operate a modern freight train, spending two days with conductor trainees in Whitefish, Montana. The school was run by BNSF, which is right now leading the biggest investment in rail since the tracks were first laid: more than $25 billion industry wide, $15 billion from BNSF alone.
The Whitefish depot is on the closest straight line between the Pacific Northwest and Chicago, and a few hundred miles from the booming Bakken oil region of North Dakota and Montana. Long, surprisingly silent oil and coal trains head west from Whitefish to refineries.
"The first thing that we teach folks who want to be conductors is to have your head on a swivel," said Scott Murray, a third-generation conductor with nearly 40 years of experience. He rode in the rear locomotive, and, as the school's lead instructor, worked closely with the trainees. "You don't nick a finger around here — you lose a limb."
Read the rest of this article at NBCNews.com.