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Thursday, 
November 06, 2003

 



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Transportation | Article published Thursday, November 6, 2003
Remote-controlled locomotive angers railroad union
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By DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER


Norfolk Southern railroad's assignment of a remote-controlled locomotive to a train that handles hazardous materials shipments from a local refinery has prompted a railroad labor union protest to federal regulators and a Toledo councilman.

Beginning last week, two remote-control operators, but no fully qualified engineer, have been assigned to the "Sun Job" that runs each weeknight between Homestead Yard in Oregon and the Sunoco Mid-America Refinery on the East Toledo-Oregon line, officials from the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers said.

The route crosses 13 public streets along the way, which the union says poses a safety hazard. Councilman Bob McCloskey, through whose district the route passes, said union members called him to warn that unmanned trains, "run by remote control from some distant source," soon would operate in East Toledo.

Norfolk Southern responded that during the trip between the rail yard and refinery, the train crew is aboard the locomotive, just as it would be without remote control. Only when the train is dropping off or picking up cars at Sunoco is the remote-control capability used away from the rail yard, spokesman Rudy Husband said, and a crewman guards any crossings occupied during that work.

While railroads have been using remote-control locomotives in the area for more than a year, the "Sun Job" is the first reported local instance of such an engine being operated outside a rail switching yard.

Tim Hanely, vice chairman of the engineers' union's state legislative board, said the use of remote control at Sunoco and on a train Norfolk Southern ran between Mingo Junction, Ohio, and Weirton, W.Va., recently violate a contractual limitation of remote control to yard use only. "They want to test it," he said. "They're crossing the line in the sand."

"It should be noted that operating between Mingo Junction, Ohio, and Weirton, West Virginia, would be no different than operating between Columbus, Ohio, and Detroit, Michigan," James F. Ong, the union's Ohio chairman and state legislative representative, said in a letter to the Federal Railroad Administration and copied to the state's Congressmen.

"We admonish the [Feder- al Railroad Administration] to consider the slippery slope they will encounter by allowing the carriers to leap remote-control operations out of the terminals and onto the main lines of the general rail infrastructure of the United States," the letter continued.

Warren Flatau, a railroad administration spokesman, said the agency is investigating the complaints with an eye toward determining if Norfolk Southern is "stretching" the remote-control guidelines.

Mr. Husband agreed that the matter is one to be resolved through collective bargaining. He didn't specify whether the train's crew was using remote-control devices or the locomotive's own throttle and brake controls during its ride between the yard and the refinery.

Mr. Flatau said federal guidelines advise against using the remote controller while riding moving equipment because an unexpected jolt could cause a sudden unintended movement of the controller. But for a remote-control crew to use the on-board controls could lead to a Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers claim that such a crew would, in fact, be doing an engineer's work.

The remote-control operators are members of the United Transportation Union, a rival with which the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers has clashed over remote control for two years.

In 2001, the United Transportation Union and six major U.S. railroads signed an agreement giving United Transportation Union members the right to operate remote-control engines in a pilot program. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers sued, claiming that the railroads' labor agreements gave its members exclusive right to control locomotives, regardless of method.

A federal arbitrator ruled early this year that the remote-control devices' computers have taken the engineer's place on the trains in which they are used, and thus conductors and trainmen represented by the United Transportation Union could properly be assigned the work. In yard-switching operations, train engineers typically execute instructions given to them by crew members working on the ground.

The railroads began using remote control for yard switching early last year.

The railroads assert that remote control is safer than traditional yard operations, because it eliminates accidents caused by miscommunication between the engineer and crewmen on the ground. Although the engineers' union maintains a list of accidents involving remote-controlled equipment, industry officials say none was caused by a remote-control failure.

The engineers' union argues that the 40-hour remote-control training class given to conductors and trainmen on the major railroads is inadequate.

Last month, however, it signed an agreement with the Texas-Mexican Railroad under which Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and United Transportation Union members will operate remote-control in tandem, with the engineer as the "lead operator."

The engineers said their agreement with the Texas-Mexican is "vastly superior" to the pact the United Transportation Union signed with the six bigger railroads, and that the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers "still has some very grave concerns over the manner in which remote control locomotive operations have been introduced into the industry."




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