Railroad workers and their families protest proposal to move to one-person crews on BNSF freight trains

A group of railroad workers, their spouses and families is mounting a campaign to defeat a new agreement between the BNSF Railway and one labor group that would allow one-person crews on freight trains.

That group, Railroad Workers United, held rallies this week in Tacoma and SeaTac to protest against the tentative labor deal that would allow those one-person crews to operate on about 60 percent of BNSF’s routes. Those routes are protected by an electronic safety system called Positive Train Control that is designed to prevent accidents and collisions.

Union railroad conductors represented by the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union (SMART) are scheduled to vote whether to approve that agreement Sept. 8.

Shawneen Falck, whose husband is a railroad conductor, said allowing one person crews on trains that often exceed two miles in length and carry thousands of tons of cargo is an invitation for disaster.

Falck, who lives near Roy, said conductors provide a second set of eyes and ears on freight trains in addition to those of engineers. Conductors are able to spot trouble on a train before it turns into a derailment or accident, she said. The conductor also is available to help handle mechanical breakdowns or health emergencies the engineer may suffer.

Falck maintained that a rogue group in the SMART union conducted secret negotiations with the BNSF before unveiling the tentative deal recently.

The railroad maintains that an engineer, backed up by a roving conductor who responds to incidents by car, will be able to safely operate a train.

The SMART group in a message to members said the new agreement will protect the jobs of current conductors while giving them a signing bonus for agreeing to the contract change. That cash bonus is $5,000. The union group, calling itself GO-001, says the tentative contract protects existing conductors from furloughs for the remainder of their careers.

Railroad Workers United contends those conductors will ultimately be forced out and that the $5,000 bonus is small compensation for sacrificing a job long part of railroading. Railroads as recently as two decades ago manned freight trains with as many as five or six people including engineers, firemen, brakemen and conductors. Most of those jobs have been eliminated as the train crews shrunk to two.

The anti-agreement group has persuaded the Washington State Labor Council to oppose the one-person deal and has worked with legislators to sponsor legislation that would prohibit one-person train crews in Washington.

BNSF said it will maintain two-person crews on freight trains carrying hazardous materials or crude oil.