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Union Pacific to begin industry-first pilot program comparing conductors to ground-based positions

Although the SMART-TD union remains opposed to redeploying conductors to roving utility jobs, a new labor agreement permits testing the railroad’s expediter concept

TOPEKA, Kan. — Union Pacific next month will begin a pilot program in Nebraska that will compare how quickly conductors and truck-based railroaders can respond to problems that trains encounter en route.

The railroad disclosed the first of its kind Class I railroad test program Monday during a public hearing on the Kansas Department of Transportation’s proposed two-person crew rule.

UP in December announced its intent to launch a four-phase pilot program to test the concept of an “expediter” position, but that was scuttled in January when SMART-TD, the union that represents conductors, refused to participate.

Now the union is on board under a new crew consist agreement. The deal creates the expanded utility position — a scheduled, $50-per-hour job — and protects the conductor position through the start of the next round of national contract negotiations that begin in 2025.

“On May 31, General Committee 953, part of SMART-TD, ratified a crew consist agreement that gives Union Pacific the ability to establish a ground-based enhanced utility position,” railroad spokeswoman Robynn Tysver says. “This position works on a fixed schedule and is dispatched in a truck to respond to planned and unplanned events along the mainline. The idea is to learn how this role can support train movement. While these operations are ongoing, two people will remain in the cab.”

Ultimately UP wants to redeploy conductors to ground-based positions in territory that’s protected by positive train control, but that would hinge on reaching additional agreements with labor unions.

In a December public hearing on the Federal Railroad Administration’s proposed two-person crew rule, UP officials said that ground-based expediters would be able to more safely and more efficiently play the role conductors do today from the locomotive cab. PTC has significantly reduced the conductor’s tasks out on the main line, they say, and an expediter would be better able to handle troubleshooting and fixing mechanical problems en route.

The first test phase will begin in August on the South Morrill Subdivision, UP’s coal-hauling route across western Nebraska that is paralleled by a state highway. The double-track line carries an average of 26 trains per day, according to recent regulatory filings regarding the railroad’s Powder River Basin coal volume.

The second phase will begin in September on UP’s single-track Greeley Subdivision, which links Denver and Speer Junction, Wyo. The line handles locals, unit trains, and intermodal trains, some of which have work events en route.

UP did not say whether two additional pilot program phases that were originally contemplated in more complex territory — between Pocatello, Idaho, and Portland, Ore., and on the Herington and Topeka subdivisions in Kansas — ultimately will be part of this round of tests.

Jason Pinder, UP’s general director of network development, told Kansas transportation officials that the railroad believes truck-based workers will be able to respond more quickly than conductors in two-thirds of instances, which will help improve customer service, reduce the time grade crossings are blocked by a train with mechanical problems, and help keep employees safe.

The expediter will cover trains operating over a set territory. UP will test how large the territory should be and how the railroad can respond to unforeseen events like the expediter’s truck breaking down.

“We know that we’re going to need to learn as we go,” Pinder says.

UP opposes the Kansas two-person crew rule, Pinder says, because it lacks a safety justification, would be preempted by federal regulation, would impede technological innovation, and hurt railroads’ ability to compete with trucks.

A two-person crew rule also would eliminate the ability of the railroad and unions to negotiate contracts that would create scheduled positions like expediters, Pinder says. The scheduled expediter job can improve the quality of life compared to unscheduled conductor jobs that require railroaders to be away from home.

Representatives of BNSF Railway, short line holding companies Genesee & Wyoming and Watco, and the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association told Kansas transportation officials that they opposed the proposed rule.

Union officials backed the Kansas proposal, which mirrors many state efforts to set crew size through regulation or new laws.

“We are huge proponents of the public safety regulation that KDOT is proposing,” Ty Dragoo, the Kansas State Legislative Director for SMART-TD, said at the hearing.

Conductors play an important safety role by providing an extra set of eyes and ears for the engineer and are first responders when a train is involved in a grade-crossing accident or derailment, union officials said.

Some of the Class I railroads say the locomotive-based conductor position should no longer be required in territory protected by PTC, the system that is designed to prevent collisions and overspeed accidents.

Like UP, BNSF is seeking to redeploy conductors. “We are still negotiating potential pilot programs that would test the feasibility of a ground-based conductor position,” BNSF spokesman Zak Andersen says.

Norfolk Southern and SMART-TD announced in March that they were ending negotiations over the redeployment of conductors to ground-based positions and are instead in talks about other ways to improve railroaders’ quality of life.

CSX Transportation and Canadian Pacific Kansas City officials have said that they currently have no interest in ground-based conductors. Canadian National has declined to comment on the issue.