June 25, 2007

CHICAGO (June 25)—Acting on a complaint brought by the UTU Illinois Legislative Board, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has ruled that the operator of a remote-controlled CSX switching locomotive was not responsible for an April 13 yard collision because the railroad had failed to properly train him and other Remote Controlled Operators in proper use of the air brakes while moving heavy tonnage.

In a May 31 letter to UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo, FRA Regional Administrator Laurence H. Hasvold said the agency reviewed CSX’s training records as well as recordings of voice transmissions on the night of the incident and concluded that “RCO’s were not trained to the expectant skills level required by the railroad.”

“We have had concerns for some time on many of the carriers about the adequacy of training for remote control operators training,” Szabo said. “Now we have definitive proof that documents at least one carrier rushing RCOs into service without adequate skills sets or experience.”

According to Joseph P. Ciemny, Local Legislative Rep. for UTU #1534, the incident in the Chicago suburb of Riverdale began when the yardmaster instructed the crew of RCO Job Y390 to couple up cars on track E8 and pull them back toward the lead.

The crew was alerted that another switching job, non-remote-controlled Y328, was occupying the lead at the track E8 switch and was instructed to stop their train short of the clearance point. The conductor of Job Y238 was on the ground at the E8 switch waiting to line the turnout for Job Y390 once his own train had cleared.

But the crew of Job Y390 was not told that their cut of cars contained more tonnage than the RCO had been trained to handle. When the RCO, who was riding the forward platform of the locomotive, began to apply the brakes at what he thought was a sufficient distance to avoid a collision, the momentum of the heavy cut continued to push the locomotive forward onto the lead switch, where it struck a boxcar in the cut being handled by Job 328 and toppled it on its side.

Ciemny said the uninjured Y328 conductor “ran around the derailment to check on the RCO operator on the locomotive and found him distraught and literally throwing up from having the fear of God instilled in him.”

The RCO operator suffered minor injuries.

“Too many of the carriers are being negligent in training people to be Remote Control Operators,” Szabo said. “They rush new employees – who often have not even learned to be proficient switchmen – through a crash course that doesn’t adequately address the skills that they will need in everyday operations.”

The FRA appears to agree.

“The railroad expected the RCOs to operate the remote-controlled locomotives with heavy drafts of railcars at this facility,” Hasvold wrote. “However, the RCO training records indicated the RCOs were never properly trained in the use of train air brakes.

“In light of this significant training deficiency, FRA is requiring CSX to formulate a remedial action plan regarding these deficiencies within the RCO training program,” Hasvold stated in his letter. “Furthermore, FRA is requiring the railroad to change the accident code relating to this incident…to a non-human-factor-caused accident. In addition, FRA will monitor the action plan and the RCO training through its routine inspections of this facility.”

“We’re greatly relieved that the FRA has moved forward and verified the inadequate training that we have suspected all along,” Szabo said. “But it’s disturbing to realize that it took a near-fatal accident to get the necessary attention.

“I urge all our members to report to their Local any concerns regarding RCO training and experience,” Szabo said. “If you don’t feel you have adequate training, go on record requesting more. If you are instructed to make a move or perform a task beyond what you were trained for, put your supervisor on notice indicating you believe the move is unsafe.

“And make sure you advise your UTU local chairman or local legislative representative, who should forward all the facts in writing to my office,” Szabo said. “When we document facts we get results. Let’s not wait until another accident occurs to make our voices heard.”