Unions Raise Safety Concerns Over Remote-Controlled Trains

Unions Raise Safety Concerns Over Remote-Controlled Trains

One evening last June, as Esther Iradukunda set the table for dinner at her home in Buffalo, she heard a high-pitched cry through the kitchen window. She rushed outside and followed the screams to the train tracks that ran about 100 feet away from her house.

She found her young brother Aron lying on the tracks, run over when he chased a ball between the cars of a train that had suddenly begun to move. Now it was stopped again, but one of the boy’s legs was lodged underneath, the bone jutting through the skin, and he had grave wounds to his abdomen.

Ms. Iradukunda desperately pulled her brother clear just as the train began moving again, rolling slowly toward the CSX train yards about a quarter-mile away. Aron, now 10, survived but lost his right leg.

No one from the railroad had heard the boy’s screams or noticed him trapped on the tracks. The train had no conductor or engineer onboard; instead, its movement was being controlled by a remote operator who was not aboard the train and, under railroad protocols, could have been more than a half-mile away.

While trains have long presented a deadly risk to pedestrians, a recent rash of accidents involving remote-control locomotives like the one in Buffalo has prompted a new federal review of the technology long billed by the railroad industry as safer than conventional trains. Railroad unions have also lodged demands to step up safety measures as the trains increasingly operate on open tracks outside the confines of a rail yard.

Only a few months after Aron was hit, the body of a woman who lived nearby was found in pieces along the same tracks, in a remarkably similar accident.

A railroad inspector in Ohio was killed in September when he stepped into the path of a remote-controlled locomotive. He was the third rail inspector since 2015 to die after being struck by a remote locomotive.

In Houston last year, an intoxicated man was found dead, with his leg severed, in an area where remote locomotives were in use. Two years earlier, a woman in the same part of Houston lost both her legs after trying to cross between cars of a remote train that began moving.

Railroads are significantly expanding their remote operations, part of a cost-cutting effort that has seen the railroad industry cut its work force by nearly a third and shift to longer and heavier trains. The companies now routinely operate remote trains not just inside rail yards, as initially envisioned when they debuted two decades ago, but also between them. Many now run through residential and commercial neighborhoods, sometimes carrying hazardous cargo such as petroleum or hydrochloric acid.

In the area of Buffalo where the boy was struck, remote trains run near dozens of houses, a neighborhood park and an elementary school. The railroad warns residents to use the pedestrian overpass, but it is nearly a quarter-mile away from Ms. Iradukunda’s house.

“We have seen an aggressive approach by Union Pacific to take remote controls outside the protected environment, using them outside the yard environment,” said Mark Wallace, first vice president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, which has complained that the expansion of remote trains is replacing highly trained engineers with less-trained remote-control operators and creating safety hazards.

“If they are going to continue to do this, there’s not going to be a sign up that says, ‘remote-control operation in use,’” he added. “Nobody would know that the engine is unoccupied.”

For the railroads, accidents like the one in Buffalo are tragedies, but are the fault of trespassers who make the dangerous decision to cross between the cars of a stalled train on private property.

“A locomotive is a massive piece of equipment,” said Kristen South, a spokeswoman for Union Pacific. “That pedestrian is going to be hurt whether it’s a remote or conventional locomotive. They wouldn’t be able to stop.”

Remote-control locomotives are not autonomous like a self-driving car, but they do lack the highly trained engineer who sits high in the cab at the front of the locomotive on traditional trains, scanning the track ahead.

Instead, the train is most often controlled by a single remote-control operator who may or may not be aboard, running the engine, brakes and other mechanisms from a body-worn remote-control device that is connected to the locomotive by a computer. In some cases, a second operator may also help guide the train.

Unlike Teslas or other automated cars, which have various onboard cameras and navigation sensors, remote trains have no such equipment — they depend on what the operator can see from wherever they are standing.

“With remote-control operations, it’s just that: There’s no requirement to have the person in the cabin of the locomotive,” said John Esterly, a union leader in Ohio. “They may be on another end of the locomotive. They may be 1,000 feet away controlling it from the other end. That’s the fundamental difference with remote trains: that lack of a set of eyes in the cab.”

In some cases, the remote operator is not on the train at all. In operations within a rail yard or very near one, there are special protocols in place, and the remote operator may be standing as far as several thousand feet from the train. In these designated “remote control zones,” there is no requirement that the person piloting the train have a view of the tracks ahead.

These zones can stretch for several miles, documents show. It was in one of these areas that the train in Buffalo was operating when it hit the boy — and no one was onboard.

On the longer trips that remote trains increasingly are taking, a remote operator must be onboard, but not necessarily in the cab: The person often hangs somewhere on the side of the train. Rail workers complain that in these cases, they sometimes have poor visibility of the tracks ahead, or of the other side of the train.

Still, there are built-in safeguards.

If there is no input from the controller after a certain period of time — for example, if the controller has fallen off the train or tripped — the train will automatically come to a stop. Trains operating in the designated remote zones have sensors on the tracks, known as “pucks,” that automatically stop the train at certain points if an operator has not already done so.

Railroad managers say that remote trains have a safety record better than traditional trains and that an operator standing alongside the tracks can respond to problems more quickly.

“Now, me, I, control everything. There is no communication issue between me and somebody else not understanding what’s going on,” said Shane Keller, senior vice president of Union Pacific’s northern operations. “I control the switches and I control that locomotive, and in both cases, if something goes wrong, the default is stop.”

At a rail yard in Iowa just outside Union Pacific’s Omaha headquarters, Steve Pihlgren, a remote-control operator who has worked at the railroad for 18 years, demonstrated how he controlled engine speed, air flow and brakes from a 3.5-pound pack on his waist. He said he or a helper always had eyes on the area in the path of the train.

Everyone focuses on safety,” he said.

An often-cited 2004 report to Congress found that remote locomotive accident rates were 13.5 percent lower than conventional trains, while employee injuries were 57 percent lower.

Just four of 4,498 railroad fatalities in the past five years were attributed to remote trains, according to the Association of American Railroads, an industry group. It documented 97 injuries associated with the trains during that period, not all of them a direct result of remote technology.

But the existing studies were conducted largely before the widespread expansion of remote trains over the past decade outside the confines of rail yards, where the potential for conflicts with pedestrians, motorists and bicyclists is much higher.

And the way remote train accidents are reported to the federal government can be spotty. A New York Times review of accident records found several recent incidents of remote train injuries that had been misattributed to conventional trains, suggesting that the number of remote train accidents may be undercounted.

Injuries to pedestrians who trespass onto tracks are generally considered to be the fault of the pedestrian, not the railroad, and often little is known about them. Trespassing-related accidents are often investigated by railroad police departments, which are given police powers by states to conduct investigations and make arrests. Local law enforcement agencies usually defer to them when an accident is outside a public crossing, meaning it is the railroad that usually determines what caused an accident.

Because of limited resources, the Federal Railroad Administration, or the F.R.A., investigates only the most serious train accidents, about 100 of the thousands that happen every year; in a relatively few cases, the National Transportation Safety Board steps in.

“Who is watching the hen house? Well, the fox is,” said Brittney Kohler, the legislative director for transportation for the National League of Cities. “It’s very much a potential technology that could help with safety of some operations, but it needs to be proven safe and not tossed into these environments without appropriate research.”

After the latest accidents, the F.R.A. last fall directed its Railroad Safety Advisory Committee to examine the safety of remote locomotives and to develop policy recommendations to make remote operations safer. Railroad officials say they are confident that no significant problems will be found.

“As the Rail Safety Advisory Committee again reviews the use of R.C.L. technology, railroads are confident that the data will show what it always has,” said Jessica Kahanek, a spokeswoman for the Association of American Railroads, a group that represents the freight train industry. “Remote locomotives are just as safe as conventional ones.”

In Houston, remote trains now traverse a mile-long section of the eastern part of the city, past family-run restaurants, bodegas, industrial warehouses and a school bus depot.

The International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, a union that represents remote-control operators, said remote locomotives are used on about six miles of track in Detroit and three miles in Toledo, Ohio. In Columbus, Ohio, a one-mile-long route is routinely staffed by a single crew member. In Tulsa, Okla., a two-person remote team handles trains along a 10-mile route.

In March, a Union Pacific locomotive operated by a single remote crew member hauled 128 cars, including 62 that were carrying hazardous materials, in Texas from Angleton to Freeport — a distance of 19 miles, according to documents obtained by The New York Times. The route traverses several communities and includes 18 train crossings, five of them with no gates.

Union Pacific said the route complies with federal regulations and includes less than a mile of mainline track, with most of the journey conducted on a slower industrial track, which operates much like a rail yard.

Federal guidance released in 2007 advised that remote trains be limited to 3,000 feet in length, traveling at less than 15 miles per hour on routes of less than half a mile and on flat ground. While that guidance still applies, there is no regulatory limit on the number of train cars being hauled by a remote locomotive, said Warren Flatau, a spokesman for the F.R.A.

“I would say that was the guidance at the time, and the railroads have been pushing the limits of the guidance,” Mr. Flatau said. “We are scrutinizing remote-control operations more closely, because there have been several accidents involving them.”

Union officials are calling for the new safety review to take into account the much longer distances the trains are now traveling in public areas between rail yards.

The railroads have declined to specify how far they are running remote trains outside the confines of rail yards. Christian Holt, director of the F.R.A.’s operating practices division, acknowledged that even the agency has no reliable reporting on this question.

“We heard 20 miles,” he said. “We are trying to figure out how far they are going. I don’t know. We heard 50 miles, but we have not witnessed that.”

The engineers’ union, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, has a stake in pushing for the safety review, as the increased use of remote trains means that engineers are replaced by lower-paid and less-trained remote operators.

The remote operators union, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, contends that remote technology is safe, but that railroads are cutting too many jobs, leaving many trains to be operated by a single remote operator, known as an R.C.O., handling a job that should be done by two or three people.

“If you look at the safety data, it’s better than the traditional or conventional way of operations. To blatantly say they are more dangerous is not true,” said Jared Cassity, the union’s national safety director.

“That said, the railroads do try to cut corners and cheat the game. They put the R.C.O. in circumstances that could make it more dangerous.”

The Biden administration in April adopted new rules requiring two-person crews on all freight trains. But the rules specifically exempt remote operations because other safety regulations already address that type of train, the Department of Transportation said.

Regardless of how many employees are onboard a train, railroad officials say, accidents like the ones in Buffalo cannot be prevented if people trespass onto private property by squeezing under the cars of a stationary train.

Three employees were operating the remote train involved in the accident involving the boy in Buffalo, though none of them were actually onboard, CSX officials said.

They said video footage confirmed that the boy was not struck by the locomotive nor by any cars near the front of the train.

“There could have been 20 people on the train, and they would not have seen the boy,” said Bryan Tucker, CSX’s vice president of stakeholder engagement and sustainability. “You can’t see behind you in the cab of the locomotive.”

But several experienced rail workers said in interviews that if an engineer had been assigned to the train, that person would most likely have surveyed the area around the train before restarting.

Ms. Iradukunda, the sister of the boy in the Buffalo accident, noted that she could hear her brother’s cries from inside the house, and yet no one from the railroad emerged to investigate, nor did anyone prevent the train from getting underway again just seconds after she pulled her brother out from underneath it.

“If I was late — if I did not go there in two minutes — it could have gone over him,” she said. “And that would be the end of his story.”

It was the death of a railroad employee in Ohio in September, coming on the heels of the other accidents, that prompted the F.R.A. to issue a safety bulletin and open a full review of remote operations, the agency said.

In that case, Frederick M. Anderson, 56, a CSX mechanical department inspector who had been on the job for 20 years, was working an overnight shift at a yard near Toledo when he did what he had done hundreds, maybe thousands, of times: He stepped across the railroad tracks.

He had parked his truck and walked across multiple tracks when he was hit by a remote-operated locomotive, according to documents from the National Transportation Safety Board.

The train, which consisted of two locomotives, was traveling at 10 miles per hour. The operator who controlled it was riding in the back on the opposite side, where he could not see the front of the train.

It was not until a few minutes later that a co-worker saw Mr. Anderson’s body, cut in two.

The N.T.S.B. is still investigating the accident, and CSX declined to comment because of the pending investigation. Police records show that one of the employees questioned by officers said that the remote train was going faster than usual.

Although the accident may ultimately be blamed on Mr. Anderson for stepping onto the tracks, several of his co-workers and others in the industry said that even simple steps such as requiring the use of sensors and cameras for remote operations — equipment that is standard in many newer automobiles — could improve safety.

“How are you driving something that I assume weighs several tons by remote control and you don’t even have a camera at the front of it to see what you are doing?” Mr. Anderson’s brother, Jerry Anderson, said in a telephone interview. “A freak accident happens one time and one time only. For this to happen this many times, and for them to continue to go on, is unacceptable.”

Don Grissom, vice president of the Transportation Communications Union, which represents rail inspectors, said that although a conventional train probably could not have stopped in time, Mr. Anderson could have been saved with a warning from an engineer or technology such as beeping sensors.

“If there was a locomotive engineer onboard, and if he saw him, he could have rang the bell and blown the horn,” Mr. Grissom said. “He’d have jumped out of the way.”

Relatives of the second person struck by a remote train in Buffalo last year said they were stunned to learn that no one was onboard and could not help but think it might have made a difference.

Tyrina Mozee, 47, who died in February just a few blocks from where the boy was hit, had also tried to move between the cars of a remote-control train that began moving, according to CSX officials.

The locomotive and the dozen or so cars it was pulling ran over her several times, back and forth, a situation that would most likely have been avoided had an engineer been sitting in the cab, said James P. Louis, the engineers union’s national vice president, based in Buffalo.

Arnette Booker, Ms. Mozee’s aunt, said she was furious to find that there were no warnings that remote trains with no conductor or engineer onboard were passing through the residential neighborhood.

“There’s no gate. There’s no sign saying ‘no trespassing,’ no sign saying ‘Danger! Don’t come on the tracks.’ There’s no warning at all,” Ms. Booker said. “This is a residential neighborhood where children live and play.”

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