After a long battle between freight railroads and the Federal Railroad Administration over the number of people required to operate on freight trains has finally been decided.

On Tuesday, Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced that the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) had issued a final rule establishing minimum safety requirements for the size of train crews, which mandates two-person crews for freight trains in the U.S.

The new rule requires a second crewmember on all trains "to enhance safety in the rail industry," according to the FRA statement.

“Common sense tells us that large freight trains, some of which can be over three miles long, should have at least two crew members on board - and now there’s a federal regulation in place to ensure trains are safely staffed,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. “This rule requiring safe train crew sizes is long overdue, and we are proud to deliver this change that will make workers, passengers, and communities safer.” 

Concerns over rail safety have been the focus of multiple stories and federal investigations since the derailment in East Palestine on February 3, 2023.

However, the train that derailed in a fiery blaze and led to the burning of vinyl chloride from the cars within the village had three crew members on it.

However, the rail industry has been pushing for one-person crews as a cost-cutting measure, and there was no regulation mandating the number of people needed to operate a train, only union contracts that prevented less than two people at any time from being on a train.

Freight trains have seen an increased number of railcars hauling hazardous chemicals over long distances. At the same time, some of the largest freight rail owners were looking at options to reduce staffing on the trains.

Some of the major freight rail haulers were hoping to have only an engineer in each locomotive, citing no evidence that two-person crews are safer. They insisted that a second crew member was unnecessary because safety equipment is designed to stop trains automatically if there is a problem in the locomotive.

That is the same safety technology that failed to alert the train crew in time of a major failure of a wheel bearing on Norfolk Southern's N32 in East Palestine more than a year ago.

The press release from the FRA on the final rule stated "A second crewmember performs important safety functions that could be lost when reducing crew size to a single person. Without the final rule, railroads could initiate single-crew operations without performing a rigorous risk assessment, mitigating known risks, or even notifying FRA. The final rule closes this loophole by establishing minimum standards and a federal oversight process to empower communities and railroad workers to make their voices heard by allowing for public input during FRA’s decision-making process on whether to grant special approval for one-person train crew operations. In finalizing this rule, FRA reviewed and considered over 13,500 written comments received during the 146-day comment period—in addition to the testimony from a one-day public hearing."

The final rule codifies train crew staffing rules at a federal level, not by the rail industry or the rail workers' contracts.

Without the final rule, railroads could initiate single-crew operations without notifying the FRA, something Rail Union Worker Patrick Jennings said has been a concern for workers. With longer trains hauling dangerous materials, Jennings said this mandate is a necessity.

"We've had all kinds of incidents, and to have two people, with two sets of eyes, being able to see and communicate with each other, it just makes everything a whole lot safer and smoother, as far as running trains," he said. 

The new rule does allow for a one-person crew in limited cases for smaller railroads, which must notify FRA of the status and comply with new federal safety standards.

“The volume of comments from rail workers and their families, as well as comments from the general public impacted by long trains and other issues, raised legitimate safety concerns that railroads, on their own, have not been able to adequately address,” said FRA Administrator Amit Bose. “Today’s final rule acknowledges the important role both crewmembers play in the safe operations of trains, and it comes at a time when the latest annual data reflects some troubling trends that demonstrate the need to improve safety. FRA is taking proactive steps to protect the public, workers, and communities where trains operate across the country.” 

An industry trade group representing primarily the major freight railroads of North America, the Association of American Railroads CEO Ian Jefferies issued the following statement, “FRA is doubling down on an unfounded and unnecessary regulation that has no proven connection to rail safety,” said AAR President. “Instead of prioritizing data-backed solutions to build a safer future for rail, FRA is looking to the past and upending the collective bargaining process.”



U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown, who introduced the stalled bipartisan Railway Safety Act of 2023 along with Senator J.D. Vance (R-OH), issued the following statement: “No one wants a miles long train barreling through their community with only one operator.  This is an important first step to protect communities—but we must pass the Railway Safety Act to make trains carrying hazardous materials safer and ensure railroad lobbyists can’t roll back the two-person crew rule in the future. The Railway Safety Act not only makes necessary improvements to rail safety protocols by permanently requiring two-person crews, it also puts in place requirements to prevent wheel bearing failures with better working defect detectors, and bolsters safety inspections to ensure no community ever has to suffer like East Palestine did. We must pass this bill and we must pass it now.”