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