- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 30, 2002

A railroad technology scheduled for its first use among major U.S. railroads next week is threatening nationwide labor turmoil among locomotive engineers.
Railroads hope to save hundreds of millions of dollars a year and speed up shipments to customers using remote-control devices to move locomotives in rail yards. But they also are angering locomotive engineers whose jobs could be eliminated.
A pilot project using remote control to switch rail cars between locomotives is scheduled to begin Feb. 4 in a Kansas City rail yard. Railroad giants Union Pacific Railroad, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway and Kansas City Southern Industries are participating in the project.
Until a federal judge slapped their union with a preliminary injunction Jan. 16, engineers concerned about being replaced by machines threatened to strike when the first use of remote control began.
Now, the 33,000-member Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers is weighing its options. BLE spokesman John Bentley said the judge's order has stopped any plans for a strike.
Meanwhile, the union is awaiting a court decision on whether to make the preliminary injunction permanent. They argue that their rights under the Railway Labor Act to collective bargaining would be infringed if the court grants the permanent injunction. No date has been set yet for a hearing at the federal court in Chicago.
"It's been our position all along that locomotive engineers should run locomotives, regardless of whether they're in the cab or on the ground," said BLE President Don Hahs after the Jan. 16 ruling.
The dispute arose when several large railroads agreed to assign all remote-technology jobs to members of the rival United Transportation Union, whose 75,000 members include many rail-yard workers. The technology allows rail-yard workers wearing transmitters on specially designed belts to maneuver locomotives even when no one is aboard.
"We estimate that the Beltpack could save the U.S. railroads as much as $250 million in operating income annually, once fully implemented," says an industry analysis issued by the Wall Street investment firm Morgan Stanley Dean Witter.
Among those who would benefit are shippers who would pay less to ship their goods and consumers who would pay less to buy their products.
On Oct. 5, Mr. Hahs sent a letter to the railroads objecting to their use of remote control.
"The railroads understand the BLE letter to be an explicit strike threat," U.S. District Judge Joan Gottschall wrote in her ruling granting the preliminary injunction. "The BLE does not deny that it intends to enter into a strike if the railroads assign the remote control technology operations to ground service employees and not locomotive engineers."
She conceded the BLE has rights under the Railway Labor Act, but said a strike could cause too much damage.
"A nationwide strike by the BLE would clearly create irreparable harm to the railroads," Judge Gottschall wrote. "Finally, it seems clear that a preliminary injunction preventing the union from striking would not harm the public interest but protect it, as a wide variety of industries depend on the railroads to be able to operate."
The Federal Railroad Administration approved guidelines last year for railroads to use remote control. Each $140,000 remote-control device means at least one fewer job is needed for a rail-yard engineer.
"We approved the use of remote-control technology because a significant amount of research indicates that the technology has the potential to increase safety and possibly efficiency in certain rail operations," said Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Warren Flatau.
The research comes primarily from Canadian railroads, where remote control has been used since 1989. They report 30 percent cost reductions for rail-yard switching and a 56 percent increase in safety.
The dominant manufacturer for the devices is Montreal-based Canac Inc., which makes the Canac Beltpack. Another is Sharpsville, Pa.-based Cattron-Theimeg.
Railroad companies plan to use the devices throughout their network of thousands of rail yards nationwide.
Rail-yard workers wearing Beltpacks with radio transmitters on them can manipulate dials to maneuver locomotives outfitted with computer-controlled radio receivers. The devices allow faster switching of rail cars between locomotives and smoother yard operations for routine maintenance. They also reduce the risk of injury by having workers stand at a distance as the locomotives move around and bump into position to pull rail cars.
One of the railroads at the forefront of the effort is CSX Transportation, which is the biggest freight hauler on the East Coast. Amtrak runs its trains throughout the Southeast and Gulf Coast on CSX tracks. CSX has ordered 100 remote-control units, the first of which are planned for use at rail yards in Tampa and Baldwin, Fla.
Another is Richmond-based Norfolk Southern Railroad, which already purchased four remote-control devices and plans to phase in the use of more of them.

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