How Many Union Members Does It Take To Operate a Train?

Labor unions have been lobbying federal regulators to mandate that all freight trains operate with two-person crews in the cab. But automation renders this largely pointless.


President Joe Biden's proposed $2.25 trillion infrastructure spending bill is more than just a huge barrel of federal cash for road, bridge, and rail projects. It is also a vehicle for reauthorizing America's surface transportation laws, providing an opportunity for special interests to write new rules and mandates into federal policy.

While most of those niche fights are unremarkable, the one shaping up between the railroad industry and its labor unions presents an interesting conundrum for the Biden administration, and it could have significant ramifications for the economy and even for efforts to reduce carbon emissions. At issue: How many people does it take to drive a train?

Labor unions such as the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers have been lobbying federal regulators to mandate that all freight trains operate with two-person crews in the cab. That's long been the standard industry practice for safety reasons. The engineer drives the train, while the rail conductor handles equipment inspections and monitors track signals. Unions worry that advanced automation will allow railroads to run safely without a second person in the engine—and they want the government to step in to protect those jobs.

This dreaded automation is indeed occurring. All major rail systems in the U.S. now use positive train control (PTC), essentially a computer-based override system that monitors speed and track signals to avert collisions. The adoption of PTC—mandated by Congress since 2008—has helped dramatically reduce rail accidents. Data from the Association of American Railroads (AAR), an industry group, show accidents are down 30 percent since 2000, while employee injuries have fallen by more than 40 percent. Railroading is safer now than it has ever been, in large part due to those technological advances.

With PTC systems handling many of the in-cab duties that were formerly the rail conductor's responsibility, railroads are seeking to reassign some of those workers. Because rail conductors typically do equipment inspections and perform other duties before trains depart from rail yards and after they return, some will continue to work in that capacity. But any changes to the employment structure have to be approved as part of collective bargaining.

The unions' lobbying efforts can best be understood as a way to gain the upper hand in those negotiations. If the federal government mandates two-person rail crews, railroads won't be able to negotiate other arrangements.

During the waning days of the Obama administration, the unions nearly got what they wanted. In 2016, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) proposed a rule mandating two-person crews. But after investigating the issue for several years, the FRA concluded in 2019 that the mandate was not "necessary or appropriate for railroad operations to be conducted safely."

Case closed—unless Congress gets involved, which is exactly what could happen this year as part of Biden's infrastructure plan.

The president, as you may have heard, is a big fan of trains. And the White House has set ambitious goals for reducing America's carbon emissions during the next few decades. Trains could be a major part of that, because moving one ton of cargo one mile by truck emits several times as much carbon dioxide as moving it by rail.

But mandating that the railroad industry employ twice as many people to drive each train means higher costs. A 2015 study by Oliver Wyman, a consulting firm, and the AAR found that switching from two-person to one-person crews could save railroad companies as much as $2.5 billion over a decade. Those savings could reduce the cost of rail freight, making train transportation more economical. That in turn could mean fewer exhaust-spewing trucks on America's highways.

Despite the potential environmental benefits, siding with the railroads could alienate Biden's labor union allies. Still, without clear and convincing evidence that two-person crews are necessary for trains to operate safety—and with PTC doing a better job of preventing accidents than humans used to—there's no compelling reason for the government to get involved in this dispute. Private railroads and unions can make their own arrangements.

If Biden needs more convincing, he should check in with his beloved Amtrak. The government-run passenger rail system dropped its own two-people-in-the-cab mandate back in the 1980s.