Above Photo: A Canadian Pacific locomotive sits in the rail yard in the East Bottoms last year in Kansas City. Tammy Ljungblad.
Gov. Laura Kelly wants to require trains operating in Kansas have at least two crew members.
Unions have pushed for rules after years of staff cuts.
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly is proposing a new rule that would require trains traveling through the state have at least two crew members on board.
The Democratic governor announced on Thursday that she has directed the Kansas Department of Transportation to propose the rule, which would be implemented following a public comment period of at least 60 days. It would apply to all railroads regardless of size, but includes no enforcement mechanism.
“Railroads across the country have faced issues ranging from crew member fatigue to derailments, all of which pose a threat to Kansans’ safety and security,” Kelly said in a statement. “Requiring a two-person crew is a commonsense, necessary measure to protect our state’s railroad crew members and keep every community along the tracks safe.”
Kelly said the rule, once implemented, would make Kansas the ninth state to require two crew members on trains.
The proposed rule comes at a time of greater scrutiny of the nation’s powerful freight railroads, which narrowly avoided a national strike late last year only by an act of Congress. The federal government, which is also proposing its own two-person crew rule, has been imposing stricter standards on railroads following high-profile derailments early this year.
In March, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators led by the Ohio delegation introduced legislation that would set new rules on hazardous material trains and require the largest freight companies to operate trains with a crew of at least two people.
That effort, championed by Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, followed the February train disaster in East Palestine, Ohio. While no one was seriously hurt in the debacle, the train was carrying hazardous materials, some of which were burned in the aftermath to avoid a potential explosion.
Focus on the number of crew members running trains has heightened following several years of deep cuts in railroad staffing. Major freight railroads have also cut routes and service in recent years as they implement new business models designed to drive up profits at the behest of Wall Street.
In a multi-part series that published in December, The Kansas City Star revealed how states and localities are largely powerless to regulate the rail industry, which is running longer trains with fewer employees and cutting back on safety training and maintenance, according to interviews with railroad workers from across the country.
The Star investigation followed the June 27 crash of an Amtrak train with a dump truck outside of Mendon, Missouri. That high-speed collision killed four people and injured dozens on an unprotected rail crossing that had long been identified as a safety hazard. The series showed that the Mendon crossing was not unique: in fact, hundreds like it across the country have raised the fears of residents and been put on lists for safety improvements that sometimes come too late.
For years, the number of workers manning a train has been shrinking: Most freight trains in the 20th Century were manned by an engineer, a conductor, a fireman and two trainmen or brakemen.
Now, most trains run with just an engineer and a conductor. And the federal government wants to make sure crews don’t get any smaller.
Under President Barack Obama, the federal government proposed a rule that would mandate most freight trains be staffed by two employees. But the Trump administration in 2019 pulled that proposal and said it would not allow individual states to regulate train crews after several states passed new laws on crew size.
The rule was reintroduced last summer by the Biden White House. U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the rule would improve safety for workers and passengers alike. Regulators cited the ever-increasing length of trains as a major reason in pushing for the new rule.
That rule is still pending final approval.
The Association of American Railroads, which represents Amtrak and all the Class I freight railroads, has fought the proposal. That organization says improved train technology means “there is no plausible safety justification for regulating the number of individuals physically located inside the cab of a locomotive.”
The organization did not answer questions about Kelly’s proposal on Thursday, but pointed to association literature opposing such efforts.
Some railroads have been pushing plans to move to ground-based conductors who could drive from train to train when needed.
The proposed federal rule is widely supported by labor unions and employees who understandably don’t want to see half of train crews wiped out.
Workers say there are also major dangers to reducing trains to a single engineer. With trains that can run two or three miles long, a conductor is key in troubleshooting any problems that arise on the road as engineers are not allowed to leave the cab of the locomotive while in transit.
“This is the proudest day of my career,” Ty Dragoo, the Kansas legislative director for SMART Transportation Division, the nation’s largest railroad union, said on Thursday. “I’m eternally grateful to my team as well as Governor Kelly, Attorney General Kobach, and their staffs for safeguarding our members and the public through the work they have done on this regulation.”
Over the past quarter century, multiple courts have ruled that only the federal government can impose rules affecting railroad operations. Most notably, courts have said states can’t limit how long a train can block motor vehicle and pedestrian traffic at a public rail crossing.
Until the late 1990s, states, cities and counties had been allowed under the Federal Railroad Safety Act to impose rules on railroads in areas not addressed by federal laws. States such as Kansas set time limits on blocked crossings, and railroads also had to follow state and local zoning regulations and environmental rules.
That changed after Congress abolished the Interstate Commerce Commission, the regulatory agency that for more than a century exerted controls on the railroads, right down to deciding how much they could charge shippers.
The Kansas Department of Transportation originally proposed the two-person crew rule in 2020. But the regulation was opposed by then-Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who said the rule was preempted by federal authority.
In an economic impact statement on the new regulation, the department said the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act does not preempt the rule because that federal legislation was limited to economic regulation — not safety.
“When it comes to public health and safety concerns, states retain certain traditional police power under the principle of federalism,” the department wrote.
If implemented, the rule would apply to both large and small railroads.
All of the Class I carriers, the largest and best-know railroads, currently operate crews of at least two people. But some shortline railroads run trains with only an engineer at the helm. The state transportation department estimates the new rule would require the hiring of about 15 more conductors, costing shortline railroads about $1.5 million more per year.