By Joseph O’Sullivan and Hal Bernton, March 11, 2015, Seattle Times
Washington’s Republican-controlled Senate could set a national precedent with a bill passed Monday night that would require up to two railroad workers in the rear of trains carrying crude oil and other hazardous cargo.
Currently, BNSF Railway, the largest freight hauler in Washington, is not required to carry rear brakemen in any of the 28 states where it operates, according to Gus Melonas, a BNSF spokesman.
Railroad union officials have maintained that crude-oil trains — which can exceed 100 cars and stretch for more than a mile — need more staffing. But foes of the proposal say the language is so broad that more workers would be mandated on other trains, like those shipping fertilizer in Eastern Washington.
The provision comes from an amendment to the bill, SB 5057, requiring trains carrying 20 cars or more of hazardous materials such as Bakken crude to have at least one worker positioned in the rear.
If the train has more than 50 such cars, two workers would have to be stationed there.
The amendment was sponsored by Sen. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, and supported by enough Republicans in the GOP-controlled Senate to pass. It initially was introduced as a separate bill, SB 5697, which has the support of both Democrats and Republicans, but has gone nowhere in the Senate.
With the passage of the amendment, the staffing provisions might become part of any compromise between the Senate and the Democrat-controlled House, which is working on its own proposal.
“Now, it’s part of the conversation,” said state Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way.
Increase of oil trains
The Senate’s action came after a bad month for tanker-train accidents. Since Feb. 14, four tanker trains — two in Canada and two in the United States — have seen cars derail and catch fire, and the accidents have helped keep a spotlight on safety issues.
Officials in Washington state have been struggling on how to improve oversight of the volatile Bakken shale crude oil shipped from the Northern Plains to West Coast refineries.
For much of the past year, up to 19 of these tanker trains moved through parts of Washington each week, including through downtown sections of Seattle and Spokane.
Adding one or two brakemen in the rear can help spot trouble before it happens, or assist in decoupling train cars should a derailment occur, according to railroad union officials.
If passed, the provision would set a national precedent and could build support for similar laws in other states, according to Herb Krohn, the state legislative director for SMART-Transportation Division
“This would be a landmark,” said Krohn, whose union represents some 2,000 rail workers in Washington state.
The provision is supported by the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, which monitors rail safety in the state. Melonas, the BNSF Railway spokesman, declined to comment on the amendment.
Two Republican lawmakers, however, have criticized the amendment.
Its language is written so the staffing rules would apply to all hazardous-materials trains — not just those shipping North Dakota crude — according to Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.
That would include shorter rail lines that ferry fertilizers like anhydrous ammonia to farms across the state, according to Schoesler.
“The short lines are a completely different creature than the long lines,” he said. “There’s some collateral damage in here that we need to consider in this.”
Miloscia says he’s willing to compromise on the language, adding, “We’ve got to bring the railroads and businesses together on this issue.”
Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale and main sponsor of the bill, said issues of staffing should stay between the rail workers and their employers.
The amendment, however, “doesn’t stop the bill from going forward because the oil-by-rail legislation is so important,” said Ericksen. “But we’re continuing working on it.”
SB 5057 would require the state to review oil-spill response plans, give grants to local emergency responders and convene a panel to determine whether tug escorts are needed for oil vessels in Grays Harbor and on the Columbia River.
Ericksen’s bill also would extend a barrel tax collected on oil that comes to Washington by train, with the money going to an oil-spill response fund.
Typically, oil trains are pushed from the rear by an additional locomotive that is unstaffed. So rather than bring back cabooses, the additional workers could ride in the rear locomotives of these trains.
A BNSF train already has two crew members — an engineer and a conductor — positioned at the front of a train, according to Melonas. They are assisted by ground crews that inspect trains as they move along the rail, as well as automated systems set along the line that can detect dragging equipment, shifting loads or other signs of trouble.
“There is obviously a great deal of attention on these unit trains, and all eyes are focused on them 24/7,” Melonas said.
While there are no federal staffing mandates, there is a proposed federal rule to require two people on all crude-oil trains.
One Washington railroad engineer who has worked on crude-oil trains said he has yet to have any tense moments on them. But the current crews and motion detectors can still miss problems, according to the engineer, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation by an employer.
Since the trains may stretch for more than a mile, the engineer said, he rarely sees all the cars when he looks back from the front locomotive.
“You are always trying to do the best job of handling the train,” said the engineer. But, “it’s always in the back of your mind that when you’re running an oil train you’re running a bomb.”