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Published: 5/14/2004

Report cites safety benefits of remote-controlled trains

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Railroad crews using remotely controlled locomotives had 13.5 percent fewer accidents and 57.1 percent fewer injuries than crews using traditional manned locomotives during a sample period last year, according to a federal report released yesterday.

But the report prepared by the Federal Railroad Administration said the agency is concerned by certain aspects of the remote-control operations that major railroads have introduced nationwide in the last two years, including at railyards in the Toledo area.

Nonetheless, a rail administration statement said the report, which represents preliminary findings six months into a congressionally mandated, 18-month review of railroad remote control, shows the controversial technology "has resulted in significant safety benefits."

"This data shows that [remote-control locomotive] technology has great potential to reduce train accidents and dramatically increase worker safety," Alan Rutter, the agency's administrator, said in a statement. "As the use of RCL expands to more railyards around the nation, its safe implementation will continue to be a top priority."

And Tom White, a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, said the rail administration's findings show the debate over remote control is "clearly an issue of union jurisdiction" rather than of safety.

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and the United Transportation Union, rival organizations that represent train operating employees, have been sharply divided over remote control.

The UTU, which in late 2001 signed an agreement with major railroads that gave its members the right to operate remote-control devices, has supported the technology as an inevitable modernization that advances safety even as it reduces the number of workers required to do particular tasks.

The BLE, whose threat to strike over the remote-control implementation agreement was struck down in court, maintains that only certified engineers should be controlling locomotives, and that the UTU members doing the work are receiving inadequate training and routinely violate safety rules.

"Remote control was in use in Canada for 10 years," said Frank Wilner, a spokesman for the UTU, based in Cleveland, which primarily represents conductors and brakemen. "And we saw those safety numbers and recognized that the technology could not be stopped in the United States for safety reasons. That's why the UTU made the best deal it could with the carriers."

He added that the deal protected the jobs and improved the pay of UTU members operating remote control "and gave the UTU a seat at the table to advise carriers on training and safety issues."

Representatives of the BLE could not be reached for comment.

But the report shared some of the BLE's publicized concern about training, remarking that during actual work assignments, remote-control operators often "were exposed to [switching] movements that they never performed during training." More field instruction would appear to be warranted, the report said.

Contact David Patch at:

dpatch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6094.



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