Railroad workers charged last week that Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway wants to do away with conductors during a town hall-style meeting with Montana Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. in Kalispell last week.
They urged Tester to support legislation in the Senate that would protect conductors’ jobs.
They claim the railroad wants to go to one-man crews, with only an engineer overseeing the operation of trains that are up to 2 miles long and transport hazardous materials like Bakken crude oil and anhydrous ammonia.
“In this neck of the woods (a derailment) would be an environmental disaster,” one railroad employee told Tester. “Railroads are more concerned with profit over public safety.”
Tester agreed that railroads have to transport materials in a safe way.
If an oil train derails into Whitefish Lake, “we’ve got a problem that costs a ton of money,” Tester said.
After the meeting, the workers declined to give their names, for fear of reprisals from the railroad, they said.
But they said a conductor is a valuable part of operating any train. For example, if one train is idle and another train passes, it’s the conductor’s job to keep an eye on that other train and look for defects, like a brake left on or a problem with a car.
Conductors also investigate and inspect a train if there’s been a collision, they said.
The railroad has been installing high tech equipment on its tracks called Positive Train Control, a collision avoidance system required by Congress in 2008 that is designed to avoid train-to-train collisions.
In 2014, the railroad tried to have conductors removed from trains that had that system installed, but the union rejected it.
Railroad workers today claim the railway is still pushing for that measure, however.
Contacted Monday, a railroad spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the conductors’ claims.