Judge Asked to Put Brakes on Illinois Freight Train Crew Rule

(CN) – Freight train organizations want a federal judge to prevent Illinois from enforcing a law that sets a minimum of two people per crew because they say it violates federal law and there is no evidence the new rule would improve safety.

Indiana Rail Road Company claims in a lawsuit filed Monday in Chicago federal court that federal regulations preempt the crew size law that Democratic Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed in August. The company and two other groups asked the court to bar the law as void and unenforceable. The new state regulation is set to take effect Jan. 1, 2020.

Represented by Gibson Dunn attorney Thomas Dupree, the Association of American Railroads and American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association are also plaintiffs. They sued the Illinois Commerce Commission, which the complaint says has authority over freight train crew sizes.

The law was enacted three months after the Federal Railroad Administration, or FRA, made a decision not to impose rules that would make freight train operators use at least two crew members. The plaintiffs argue that technological advances have made railroads in America safer than ever. There is no evidence that one-person crews would make them any less reliable, they say.

In a May 29 notice in the Federal Register, the FRA said it was withdrawing a proposed rule that would have required a minimum of two crew members on freight trains. Nine states have enacted crew size laws, including California, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

“FRA is providing notice of its affirmative decision that no regulation of train crew staffing is necessary or appropriate for railroad operations to be conducted safely at this time,” the agency said.

The FRA said it had proposed the rule in March 2016 after two rail accidents in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec and Casselton, North Dakota. The Lac-Mégantic disaster in July 2013 claimed the lives of 47 people after a 74-car freight train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in the town in eastern Quebec.  In Casselton, oil spilled from 18 derailed tank cars in December 2013. There were no injuries or deaths but the 500,000-gallon spill caused close to $7.2 million in damage, and more than 1,500 people were evacuated from the city.

In an email, FRA spokesman Stephen Bradford said he could not comment on pending litigation. But he noted that the rail industry had a “strong safety record” and that withdrawal of the rule was meant to preempt all state laws that try to regulate and enforce minimum crew sizes.

“Further, a crew staffing rule would have posed an unnecessary obstacle to future innovation in the rail industry, whose crew staffing matters have been well-served by the Railway Labor Act since 1926,” Bradford wrote in an email.

The offices of the Illinois attorney general, governor, and commerce commission did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday. An Indiana Rail Road Company spokesperson was not available for comment.

The company, which operates a 250 mile-long stretch of railroad from central Illinois to southwest Indiana, says in the lawsuit that it has used one-person crews since 1997 “without compromising safety.”

It says it needs an injunction because it could face civil penalties if it fails to comply with the new state law. The regulation would require it to give up its rights under federal law as well as provisions in a union contract that allow it to run one-person crews, according to the lawsuit.

“The recent history of railroads confirms the wisdom of FRA’s expert determination that minimum-crew-size laws are neither necessary nor appropriate,” the lawsuit states. “In recent decades, technological breakthroughs have allowed railroads to gradually decrease average crew sizes—from about five in the 1960s to just two today—while compiling an ever-improving record of safety.”

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