PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Most railroads in the U.S. use at least two crew members to operate freight trains, but there's no federal rule to prevent them from using one employee as did a Maine-based railroad whose train, while unattended, careened into a Canadian town, causing an explosion and fire that killed 47 people.
Canadian officials have banned single-person freight train crews for dangerous cargo, and a union is encouraging U.S. officials to follow suit by mandating at least two crew members to ensure safe operations of freight trains in the U.S.
"We are doomed to endure more unnecessary tragedy in the future so long as government fails to fulfill its responsibility to the safety of workers and the public," Dennis Pierce, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen in Cleveland, said in a statement.
While there's nothing to indicate that an extra crew member would have prevented the July 6 disaster in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, some observers expressed surprise that there was only one person running the nearly mile-long train carrying 72 tankers filled with crude oil destined for a refinery in New Brunswick.
Canada's Transportation Safety Board said there was insufficient brake force to hold the train, which began rolling after being parked overnight on a rail line. A Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway executive blamed the train's operator for failing to set enough hand brakes.
The railroad, based in Hermon, Maine, was one of two with special permission from the Canadian government to operate with a single-person crew.
But that changed when Transport Canada announced Tuesday that there will be no more solo-operator crews for trains with dangerous goods. Transport Canada also said trains with dangerous cargo will not be allowed to be left unattended on a main track.
In the U.S., the Federal Railroad Administration declined in 2009 to mandate a two-person crew following a petition by two unions.
Despite the lack of a rule, it's "very rare" to see a one-person freight train crew in the U.S., spokesman Kevin Thompson said.
The FRA continuously reviews its rules and will consider the guidance from Canadian officials, and "will not hesitate to take action should the need for revisions to existing standards be required," Thompson added.
Railroads have examined staffing and personnel costs over the years, often putting them at odds with unions representing crew members.
The nation's largest rail operators have concluded that the minimum staffing is two crew members — a locomotive engineer and a conductor — but smaller railroads sometimes use only one, officials say. Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway Chairman Ed Burkhardt has been a proponent of using only one crew member.
Pierce, whose union represents Montreal, Maine & Atlantic employees in the U.S., called on Congress, federal regulators and the Obama administration to take steps to ensure that there's at least two crew members.
"The answer to the question 'Why was Ed Burkhardt operating trains with a single crew member?' is 'because he can.' The issue is no more complicated than that," Pierce said.
Burkhardt didn't return a call from The Associated Press seeking comment.
The idea behind having more than a single crew member is that two heads are better than one — crew members work together and double-check each other's work. If one has to get off the train to switch tracks or inspect equipment, there's another person still aboard. There's also an extra person to serve as spotter when a train backs up. And, of course, there's an extra crew member if one of them becomes disoriented or incapacitated.
It's the same idea behind having a pilot and co-pilot aboard commercial airliners.
"Given the potential for serious injuries and death and destruction of property in the event of an accident, I think that at a minimum you want two people to help ensure against those things," said George Gavalla, a former FRA associate administrator for safety, who's now a consultant in Connecticut.