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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

July 10, 2013 at 10:53 AM

Behind the rail explosion, too few railroaders

Much attention concerning the Quebec rail disaster has focused on the danger of transporting oil by rail. But pipelines come with hazards, too. For example, a natural gas pipeline exploded in southeast New Mexico in 2000, killing 12. Earlier this year, an Exxon Mobil pipeline carrying Canadian crude ruptured in Arkansas, causing major environmental damage. Also, given the geographic dispersal of the fracking boom, railroads are the most efficient way of carrying much of this petroleum. Many of these fields are far from existing pipelines, and because “tight oil” recovered with fracking tends to deplete more quickly than traditional oilfields, there’s little incentive to build new pipelines in many cases.

Another issue needs discussing: Railroad crew sizes. According to the Wall Street Journal, this train of five locomotives and 72 tanker cars was in the care of one person, the engineer. One. This person stopped the train in Nantes, Quebec, headed to a hotel, leaving the diesels running so as to keep pressure in the brake lines, and was going to be relieved by another engineer. It was during this time that at least one locomotive caught fire. A track technician from the Montreal Maine & Atlantic, a subsidiary of Illinois-based Rail World, arrived to assist firefighters. The owner of Rail World said, according to the Journal’s report, “that technician wasn’t qualified to know that the engine needed to be on to keep the air brake fully engaged. It is unclear if the technician told the dispatcher.” Shortly afterward, the unmanned train broke away and rolled downhill to Lac-Mégantic, derailing and exploding, leaving 15 confirmed dead and 60 missing as of this morning.

Many things went wrong. But one engineer for such a large train carrying hazardous materials seems reckless. Yet this is the direction where much of the railroad industry wants to head, and not just short lines but giant Class 1 railroads.

Through the first several decades of the 20th century, railroads were major employers. In 1929, railroads employed more than 2 million people. Today the figure is around 200,000. These reductions in well-paying, secure union jobs have been made possible by technological advances such as ever more sophisticated diesel locomotives and computerized signalling, control and switching, as well as getting work rules changed. As late as the 1970s, many railroads were required to have crews of five people: Engineer, fireman (a holdover from steam days), conductor and brakemen. Today the standard crew on a Class 1 road is two people. The rear of the train doesn’t have a caboose with a crew, but a small “Fred” unit attached to the last car to provide electronic information. Some yards have robot diesels that handle switching, further reducing the need for humans.

There’s an interesting thought experiment about such reductions happening around the entire economy and where that leaves the labor market, especially as such automation accelerates in the future. But for mile-long trains whose many quirks and operating needs defy a person sitting in a distant dispatch center, this is more than an intellectual exercise. To be sure, railroad safety has been good and runaway trains always have been a danger. But as technology further removes people from control of such gigantic and risky endeavors, railroad executives and regulators need to pay attention.

And Don’t Miss: Slow boat from China — is the world ready for Beijing’s new normal? | Foreign Policy

Today’s Econ Haiku:

Apple E-book trial

Judge finds a conspiracy

Amazon just smiles

Comments | More in Railroads | Topics: labor, pipeline safety, Quebec train explosion

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