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Rail system needs national safety standard

Mirror readers, especially those with ties to the railroad industry, no doubt recall the Federal Railroad Administration’s decision in 2019 to drop a FRA proposal to require two-person crews on freight trains.

Those same readers might recall a Mirror editorial on Jan. 26, 2020, urging the federal agency to rethink its stance. The following quote from that editorial remains as true and relevant today as it was on that day when it first appeared in print:

“The possibilities are sobering regarding what could happen if the single person in charge of a train were to suffer a heart attack or stroke or another serious medical condition such as an aneurysm, unbeknownst to anyone else, on a remote stretch of rail line or even on a section of track not in a remote area.”

The editorial went on to say that “people here might wonder what the outcome would be if a medical emergency would incapacitate a crew-of-one while a train with many units was descending the mountain from Gallitzin leading to or continuing from the Horseshoe Curve.”

The Mirror sticks by those points and the supportive opinions that followed.

Fast-forward to an Associated Press article published by the Mirror last month on July 28. The article announced that the FRA, by way of a new ruling published in the Federal Register, had directed that railroads continue using two-person crews in most circumstances as they haul all kinds of cargo, including hazardous materials, across the country.

There would be an exception, however. Short-line railroads already using one-person crews would be permitted to continue using them. Meanwhile, railroads would have the green light to apply for permission to use smaller crews if they can prove that the practice would be safe.

The public needs to know how providing such a guarantee would be possible, all considered. A logical initial reaction on the part of most people would seem to be deep skepticism.

The July 28 AP article noted that a rule requiring two crew members was issued in 2016, but that plan was abandoned during the Trump administration because the Railroad Administration said there was not enough evidence to show it was safer.

According to federal officials, the proposed rule announced recently will replace the existing patchwork of state laws on railroad crew sizes with a national standard.

A national standard is reasonable only if it is better than what it replaces, and railroad employees, customers and the public in general deserve such an assurance.

Although railroad executives are putting their trust increasingly in a system that can stop trains automatically in certain circumstances — the system is called Positive Train Control — it is hard to fathom that there has yet been enough examples of PTC’s performance under emergency scenarios to justify such confidence.

For places like Altoona and Johnstown with extensive railroad histories, the issue of train crew size is not likely to go away without trust becoming more deeply rooted regarding what is on the rails. It can be said confidently that many people still are stunned when they learn that only two people might be at the controls of long trains seemingly without end.

The FRA’s latest decision is, for the most part, correct, but it must be careful in how it reacts to new proposals and challenges that most certainly will be forthcoming in months and years to come.

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