WASHINGTON — Congress is pushing to mandate a specific crew size on trains following a series of dangerous incidents. But the legislation leaves out a type of train that regularly carries hazardous chemicals in major metropolitan areas with no conductors onboard.
Union Pacific, among other rail companies, operates remote-controlled locomotives (RCLs) for short distances in and around rail yards in places like Houston, Denver and Tucson, Arizona. The trains can carry chemicals like acidic poison, ethanol and sulfuric acid. And the Railway Safety Act of 2023 won’t stop the practice because of the bill’s exceptions for trains that “do not travel farther than 30 miles from the point of origin,” among other exceptions.
Union Pacific has for 20 years used workers who are not licensed engineers or conductors to operate these trains using remote joysticks. The workers are required to have only two weeks of remote operation training, as opposed to six months or more for conductors, to move these trains between rail yards.
The company became the second major railroad this week to drop a longstanding push for one-person crews aboard trains, joining Norfolk Southern, as a group of bipartisan lawmakers eyes an overhaul of the rail industry, which includes mandatory two-person crews on long-haul trains.
But what the lawmakers’ bill leaves out sheds new light on the parts of the rail industry that remain lightly touched by regulation, in the wake of major disasters like the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, that spilled 1.6 million pounds of hazardous chemicals, despite that train having an engineer, a conductor and a trainee onboard.
“We felt that the meat of the problem was ultimately long-haul trains with very long cars, and that’s where you see most of the problems in terms of transporting hazardous materials,” Sen. JD Vance, R-Ohio, who cosponsored the legislation, told NBC News on Thursday. “We’re certainly open to looking at alternatives,” he added, saying the legislation was crafted in the office of Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and rail companies had “no input” in the process.
On Thursday, March 9, a nearly mile-long train traveled from Settegast Railyard to Basin Railyard, about 6 miles, right along the Interstate 610 loop around Houston. The train went along the edge of residential neighborhoods that line the city of about 2.3 million and through several rail crossings, including one a little more than a mile from a hospital, and another a similar distance from an elementary school.
This train, which was remotely operated by Union Pacific, had 36 cars with hazardous material, including corrosive liquid that melts skin and bone upon contact, petroleum, flammable liquids, poisonous gas and more, according to an internal document obtained by NBC News with details about the train and its contents.
Residents and business owners nearby routinely complain about these trains, run by Union Pacific and BNSF railway, which take a long time to move through crossings due to their length. And, as one owner of a farmers’ market right along the train’s path pointed out, the train’s blaring horn can hurt business.
“I can’t even carry out a conversation with my customers,” said Efren Gonzalez, the owner of Azteca Farmers Market in Houston. “Besides how annoying it is, the trains just block the street. Traffic has to turn around, so it affects my business.”
Gonzalez “had no idea” the trains were remotely operated, despite a few signs along the track that say, “Locomotive cars may be unoccupied.”
“Now it makes sense why the horn is blowing from such a long distance,” Gonzalez said, adding he also was not previously aware of the trains carrying hazardous materials before being informed of that by NBC News. “If something spills, a lot of people would get hurt, it affects a lot of people around here. You’re talking less than a mile away from downtown.”
Two engineers and conductors who work for Union Pacific and who spoke to NBC News on condition of anonymity say the company is looking to “dramatically” expand its use of RCLs. According to a locomotive engineer who works for Union Pacific, the remote operator can be in the front or back of the train, or even on the side of the tracks.
The cost-saving practice falls under a gray legal area. When the Federal Rail Administration initially issued guidelines for RCLs outside rail yard boundaries in 2007, these trains were required to travel less than half a mile, be no more than 20 cars in length, and operate on flat ground.
Union Pacific did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment about the expansion of RCLs. Instead, Kristen South, senior director for the company’s media relations team, said, “We are currently using the technology to move cars between two rail yards in the Houston area in full compliance with the Federal Railroad Administration’s guidelines.”
In a statement, the Federal Railroad Administration said, “There are no specific concerns with the use of remote-control operators.” The agency also said that rail carriers self-report incidents that occur on their railroads, but only if damages total more than $11,500. They are required to submit reports to the Federal Railroad Administration, which then audits the reports but does not separate the data in terms of manned or unmanned trains.
At least three minor accidents have been reported in and around the rail yards northeast of Houston in the past decade. Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency announced an agreement with Union Pacific requiring the rail company to test the soil in and around its yards for creosote, a likely human carcinogen, amid confirmed higher than average rates of cancer diagnoses among residents in the area. The chemical was used decades before to treat wooden railroad ties.
“It is unbelievable that the Union Pacific, and the other self-regulated railroads, have chosen not to use a certified locomotive engineer in the cab of these trains,” Eddie Hall, national president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, said in a statement.
“With the assistance of armies of lobbyists, the railroad companies have spent millions convincing lawmakers to allow self-regulation — that is, to ‘trust us’ to protect the public from hazards,” Hall continued. “But those assurances are nothing but broken promises.”