View Full Version : Railroad uses remote to control trains

09-28-2003, 04:19 PM
From the Memphis Commercial Appeal


Union engineer warns that technology poses safety hazard

By Jane Roberts
September 28, 2003

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad is the first of the four Class I railroads in Memphis to use controversial remote-control technology to move unmanned locomotives in its switching yard.

It put 48 workers, including conductors, through a two-week training course this month that qualifies them to move locomotives using electronically transmitted impulses from a pack worn around the waist.

By Thomas Busler
Yard foreman Tim Childress of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad uses a remote-control device on his vest to control a locomotive pushing freight cars.

The impulses are received by a microprocessor in the locomotive that signals it to move forward and backward - coupling with railcars or switching tracks - all work that used to require an engineer on board.

BNSF is routinely using the technology now at its yard off U.S. 78 and Shelby Drive. It does not use remote-controlled locomotives (RCL) around public crossings or on line runs, said BNSF spokesman Joe Faust.

BNSF began implementing RCL in February 2002.

"Our experience, as well as that of Canadian and other U.S. railroads, indicates that the technology has both safety and efficiency benefits," Faust said.

Accidents in the first half of the year in the remote-control jobs were down 52 percent compared to non-remote-control jobs, Faust said.

RCL technology replaces the hand signals yard workers use to communicate with the engineer in the locomotive.

Built-in safety devices mean the microprocessor will respond only to its assigned transmitter. It will stop operating if the worker does not indicate alertness every 60 seconds. If the worker's pack is tilted, the system is disabled.

"That's the kind of fail-safe that is not available with humans using hand signals," said Jack Burke, spokesman for Canadian National Railroad, which has been using the technology in Canada since the 1980s.

RCL has sparked controversy nationwide from citizens and railroad engineers who say it is not only unsafe but it will eventually mean railroads can run unmanned locomotives across public roads or use them to haul hazardous waste across the country.

"It's a public safety hazard," said Mike McClary, state legislative chairman for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers union. "Especially in Memphis. There are more chemicals and hazardous materials coming through Memphis than anywhere I've seen.

"When you take the eyes and ears off the front of the locomotive, it's a recipe for disaster," he said.

As an engineer, McClary said he sees people every day cutting through rail yards or walking the perimeter who would be in danger around remote-control movements.

The Federal Railroad Administration, the division of the Department of Transportation charged with overseeing rail safety, has not issued any regulations since it posted its RCL safety advisory in February 2001.

"Apparently they think it is the safest thing since cotton candy," McClary said.

The engineers' union is running an aggressive public outreach campaign, which has resulted in some municipalities adopting resolutions against RCL.

Both Knox and Unicoi counties in Tennessee have passed resolutions asking the FRA to adopt comprehensive regulations for the use of the technology.

The United Transportation Union, the nation's largest representative of railroad workers and BLE rival, says the BLE's argument boils down to lost jobs.

"A tremendous number of railroad jobs have disappeared," said UTU spokesman Frank Wilner.

Instead of fighting that battle, the UTU, he said, made a pact with the Class I carriers a year ago to allow remote-control technology if the carriers would ensure their jobs.

"The sad thing is, we tried to get the BLE to join us. They have made this a job issue," he said, adding that where BLE represents remote-control workers, the union has no complaint about the technology.

Remote-control locomotives have been the source of considerable labor strife for several years, said FRA spokesman Warren Flatau.

"We have assured rail labor that we will investigate any RCL incident brought to our attention," he said.

In 2001, the FRA issued a RCL safety advisory outlining requirements railroads were to voluntarily follow regarding RCL equipment design, training and operating practices.

"The FRA is neither in favor or against the deployment of RCL technology," Flatau said. "Our main concern is where the technology is used that it is done so safely."

The agency continues to gather information and investigate RCL incidents. As part of its study, any work incident related to RCL use must be documented for FRA study.

"Rail switching is an immense choreographed industrial ballet," Flatau said. "It is safe if everyone plays by rules."

Canadian National is introducing the technology in the United States now, Burke said.

"It has reduced accidents by at least 56 percent," he said. "RCL enhances safety and it does so by putting eyes where the action is taking place and eliminating chances for miscommunication with hand signals or voice."

"RCL does have the ability to enhance our efficiencies. If yard operations are more efficient, we'll get more traffic and more line haul jobs," Burke said.

But he makes no promises that the jobs will look like the old ones.

"They may not be the same, but it is always our intent to grow our business."

- Jane Roberts: 901-529-2512

10-10-2003, 01:23 PM
The Vermont Railway began using a similar system about 10 years ago. I think it was installed on one particular locomotive to streamline switching duties. Don't know if VTR has installed it on additional units or not. Far as I know it worked well for them.

E.M. Bell
10-10-2003, 02:51 PM
I always get a big kick out of the unions when they try to "overcome" ideas, and use thier distorted views to influence others.

I am (was) a qualified Remote control Locomotive engineer, and have logged a few hundred hours on my feet with the box strapped around my neck. Did I like it at first..NO..I felt degraded, a engineer being put back to ground pounding AND running the engine, and I to had questions about its safety. The person who trained me to use the system was a very safety minded, and VERY knowledgeable about his product, and after getting over the jitters the first few times, I was as comfortable running the engine from the ground as I was setting in the seat, and did so for almost 3 years with a spottless saftey record.

In my situation, it was pure economics. I worked for a small shortline in TN, with a only 3 other guys. We moved a large number of cars, had 32 customers scattered about on 3 seperate pices of railroad, and ALWAYS worked 11 or 12 hour days. We normally had a 3 man train crew, but when one person was off sick, on vacation ect, it really put a bind on us getting the work done. In those situations, the remote simply helped us to serve the customer better, that increased buisness, and THAT is the true name of the game.

I can understand the posistions the UTU and BLE have on the fact that the remotes will eliminate jobs, and to a point this is true, and yes, there have been numerous accidents involving the RCL units, But this is true when ever ANY new high tech stuff comes on line.

Bottom line, it is just a tool, no differnt than a new model of locomotive ect, and there has to be a learning curve. ANY tool or device can be unsafe, and it all comes down to TRAINING and person who is using that new tool.

Ray L. Nutz
10-12-2003, 02:59 PM
a lot of accidents happen when a RCO decides to use shortcuts like backing a train blind or pulling out to just swich one more car without going to leading end of the move.
there is no rulebook in US that allows you to make a move without a person on leading end of the move. 80% of the accidents were contriubuted to the RCO being at opposite side of the train.
as long as RCO's stick by the rules not to many accidents will happen, it will ofcours also slow down the amount of moves made, but that is a railroad problem :lol: :lol:

10-15-2003, 08:35 PM
Speaking of remote control, this photo is awesome: http://www.railpictures.net/viewphoto.php?id=34797

What other uses besides yard work can these locomotives be used for, if any? I've seen a couple of other photo's with NS locomotives(namely 38's) that have this feature and was always thinking they might be used for coal train loading/unloading or something.