Two-man crews limited damage in 1996 train wreck

By By Allison Lampert, The Montreal Gazette | Fri, 12 Jul 2013

Nearly two decades ago, the fiery derailment of a Wisconsin train became a rallying point in a union fight to make the state the first in the United States to require two-person crews on locomotives.

The 1996 wreckage of the train, which sent fireballs exploding 90 metres in the air, was operated by Wisconsin Central Transportation Corp., then headed by Ed Burkhardt, the CEO of the railway now under scrutiny for a rail disaster early Saturday in Lac-Mégantic.

During the Wisconsin derailment, union leaders credited the actions of the conductor — who uncoupled the cars carrying chemicals and propane to prevent the fire from spreading further — at a time when several rail companies, including Burkhardt’s Wisconsin Central, were experimenting with the use of one-person crews.

“The conductor got off and actually made a cut in front of where the fire was and saved people’s lives,” recalled Keith Luebke, then a leader of a Wisconsin union that pushed for two-person crew legislation.

“He got the engines and the cars away from where there could have been more explosions. I think people understood that having a second person on that train helped save that community from annihilation.”

Debate over the usage of one-person crews, where only a locomotive engineer is driving the train — rare practice in Canada and the United States — is being revived in both countries after the explosion of a 72-car train in Lac-Mégantic that is believed to have killed 50 people, while flattening much of the touristic village’s downtown core.

On Wednesday, Transport Canada confirmed that the use of a single crew member on the deadly train trip is part of the investigation by the Transportation Safety Board. MMA locomotive engineer Thomas Harding is under police investigation and has been suspended without pay by the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, said Burkhardt, CEO of parent company Rail World Inc. Burkhardt, who began the MMA’s use of one-person crews in Canada last year, continues to defend the practice, claiming “we actually think one-man crews are safer than two-man crews.”

Maryse Durette, a senior media relations adviser with Transport Canada, said in an email that “Regulatory action under the Rail Safety Act can be used if the parameters for single person train operation are not met or if Transport Canada determines that there is a risk to safe railway operations.”

The MMA Railway and the Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway are the only two in the country to operate one-person crews, Transport Canada said.

Contrary to multiple media reports, the use of one-man crews on trains is also uncommon in the U.S., and is restricted mainly to switching yards, or to smaller railroad companies using non-unionized labour, said James A. Stem Jr., national legislative director of the 125,000-member United Transportation Union.

“The use of one man crews is very rare,” Kevin Thompson, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, said in a statement. “In almost every case, an engineer operates and a conductor manages a train, calling out signals and keeping inventory of its cargo.”

In fact, almost all of freight rail traffic in the U.S., “operates with two-man crews. There is no discussion of moving to one-man crews in the U.S. for major railroads,” an American Association of Railroads spokesperson said.

In the late 1990s, Burkhardt, the founder of the regional railroad Wisconsin Central Transportation, was testing one-person crews on certain lines, media reports said.

“Nobody in their right mind, who has any knowledge of railroad operations would attempt to do what the MMA has done,” Stem said. “Everywhere Ed Burkhardt has ever been, he’s attempted to skirt every safety regulation that required common sense and good judgment.”

A 1997 law in Wisconsin orders rail companies to maintain a locomotive engineer and conductor on all trains, with certain exceptions.

Luebke said the 1996 derailment heightened public interest in the safety debate over two-person crews.

“If you have two people up there, one guy says to the other guy, ‘have we got enough hand brakes set? Have we got this train secured enough that we can get off duty and go away from it and not have to worry about it,” he said, in reference to Burkhardt’s latest claims that the engineer did not properly set the hand brakes. “We don’t have that luxury evidently in this last incident up in Canada.

“In the old days we would have to stay there until we were relieved.”


Ask A Question
SMART Local 202 | P.O. Box 5283 | Denver, CO 80217-5283 | Phone 303-937-0728, Fax 303-937-1213 | © 2014 SMART Local 202 | Admin | Site by Paradigm

Site Ensemble CMS Copyright © 2014 Paradigm New Media, LLC. All rights reserved.