DESPITE well established and safe operation by sister companies of driver-only freight trains in New Zealand and Britain, Wisconsin Central has been ordered by the US Federal Railroad Administration to provide a second crew member except for light locomotives and trains on industrial tracks. Remote operation of unmanned locomotives by radio is also banned outside industrial plants.

On February 7, WC signed a Safety Compliance Agreement with the FRA which commits the company to these changes as well as improving staff training, operating practices, and track and rolling stock inspection. The FRA action follows two safety audits in 1996 which showed WC’s accident rate to be nearly double the average for US railways, and 72% greater than operations of similar size. Repairs to 30 locomotives and hundreds of wagons have been ordered, along with 15 sections of track on the 4800 km network.

WC Executive Vice-President J Reilly McCarren said in mitigation that the company had planned to spend $65m this year on track upgrades, but WC was created from lines ’deemed uneconomic by their previous owners’ who had let assets deteriorate. FRA has sent a team of 24 inspectors to monitor the compliance programme.

Canadian experience with remote control of shunting operations since 1990 has been that safety is improved, with incidents cut by two-thirds. This is mainly because the person on the ground does not have to communicate with a locomotive driver, thus eliminating misunderstandings and reaction time. Many safety devices are included such as tilt switches which stop the locomotive if the operator falls over, and there has never been a wrong-side failure of the equipment. The banning of remote control by the FRA, which the United Transportation Union is demanding in the US (but not in Canada), is therefore likely to result in additional casualties among rail workers if it becomes permanent.

Like remote operation, one-person crews are greatly desired by regional and short lines but find little favour as yet with Class I carriers which operate much longer trains. It is unfortunate that lapses in maintenance by WC appear to have set back the introduction of one-person crews, but given their widespread use in other parts of the world the setback can only be temporary. o