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U.S. railroads slow to adopt remote control

Canadian railroaders use a technology nearly every day that could have stopped Toledo's recent runaway train dead in its tracks when it took off from an area rail yard.

Worn on a harness, the remote-control devices weigh several pounds and allow engineers and rail personnel to handle a train without being in the locomotive.

It controls a locomotive's speed, braking, rail sanding, horn and bell, and other functions and likely could have been used to stop a train like the one that rolled out of CSX's Stanley Yard on a 70-mile unmanned odyssey on May 15.

“This is one of the clearest examples we have seen as to why control of the locomotive should be with the person who has the clearest vantage point - in this case, a person on the ground at the switch,” said George Stern, a rail industry consultant based in Detroit.

But the use of remote-controlled locomotives in the United States largely is limited to industrial rail settings, such as steel mills, mines, and chemical plants. While a few smaller U.S. railroads use the device, none of the big operators here does, including Canadian National/Illinois Central and Canadian Pacific, both of which have extensive operations here and in Canada.

Introducing remote control at CN/IC's American facilities is “just not part of the plan,” said Jack Burke, a company spokesman in Chicago, who refused to say why they are not being considered.

“It's something the railroads are working on,” was all Tom White, a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, said.

But other industry sources said railroads are proceeding cautiously to avoid labor trouble, and are concerned in particular by a battle the Wisconsin Central and its unions waged over remote control during the mid-1990s.

The company's proposal to extend remote-control yard operations to delivery trains on branch lines, with an accompanying cut in crew jobs, prompted strong union opposition on safety grounds.

At the same time, Wisconsin Central had a series of accidents unrelated to remote control operation. As part of a regulatory settlement with the Federal Railroad Administration, it agreed in 1997 to suspend use of remote control except in yards.

Later that year, the Wisconsin legislature passed a law requiring two-person crews on trains. Ann G. Thoma, a Wisconsin Central spokeswoman, declined to discuss the union dispute but said the Wisconsin law nullified the main advantage that the company saw from remote control. “The benefit of remote control was to allow a single employee to perform the same work two people connected by radio could perform,” she said.

Bob Harvey, the engineers' union's regulatory research coordinator, said labor organizations are not steadfastly opposed to remote control, but they do not believe its safety has been thoroughly researched, especially for certain applications.

“It may make sense in some areas, but in others it may not make any sense at all,” he said.

Mr. Stern, who is a past president of the Chicago & Illinois Midland and the New York & Atlantic, said when he was with Chicago, they put remote controls in four of their locomotives.

The crews, which had complained before the devices came in, said they were happy they had been installed, he said. The move caused a reduction of one person per crew, but also improved safety, Mr. Stern said.

In the local runaway train incident, a train being assembled at the yard in Lake Township took off when its engineer inadvertently hit the throttle instead of a brake before stepping down from the locomotive to change the position of a track switch.

Down the line, a CSX train crew slowed the train by coupling another locomotive onto the runaway's rear car and braking, which allowed another employee to jump aboard and close the throttle.

Observers said if the crew assembling the train had been using a remote-controlled locomotive, the engineer already might have been standing on the ground when the need to change the track switch became apparent. And had the runaway still occurred, the train would have stopped as soon as it was no longer within radio range of its controlling device.

Mark Hallman, a CN/IC spokesman in Toronto, and others cautioned it is not certain that the runaway train would have had a remote-control engine, if CSX employed such equipment at Stanley Yard. But assembling trains in yards is one function for which remote control is used at some locations in Canada and on smaller railroads in the U.S.

A CN analysis of its remote-control operations, which became widespread starting in 1996, revealed an accident rate that was 56 percent lower than that for traditional yard switching, according to a report submitted last year to the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration. And not a single accident during the period was blamed on a malfunction of the remote-control equipment.

“Based on our Canadian experience, we see benefits from both efficiency and safety” using remote control, Mr. Burke said.

Alice Saylor, vice president and general counsel for the American Shortline and Regional Railroad Association, said remote control's biggest benefit is to reduce exposure to injury.

“This technology, when used with proper training, is not only safe, but safer,” she said. “You can't run over a person who isn't there.”

Earlier this year, the FRA issued guidelines for remote-control safety, including a 20-mph recommended speed limit, no remote operation of passenger trains, and advice against operators climbing on or off moving locomotives.

Neither labor nor management is satisfied. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, whose membership primarily works for the large carriers, has urged the railroad administration to adopt remote-control regulations instead of voluntary guidelines.

The American Shortline and Regional Railroad Council, meanwhile, said some of the guidelines recommend against remote-control practices that some small railroads safely employ.

Mr. Harvey, an engineer for 25 years, said that in some situations for which remote control might be used, its computer “brain” would be an inadequate substitute for a veteran railroader's experience. “Running a locomotive, he said, “is like driving a highly responsive sports car. The feel is a big part of it.”

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