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Biden administration announces requirement for 2-person crews on freight trains

The U.S. Department of Transportation issued a final rule Tuesday increasing the minimum size for train crews to two people, a longtime ask for rail worker unions, which nearly led to a strike in 2022.

Under the final rule, all large freight railroads will be required to maintain crews of at least two people per train. Rail worker unions have called a two-worker minimum key in making sure crews are equipped to take proper safety precautions and prevent them from overexerting themselves.

“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,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement. “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.”

Rail safety, and the specter of corner-cutting at the expense of safety, has come under intense scrutiny since February 2023, when a Norfolk Southern-operated train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio.

The crash was attributed to an overheated bearing, and the train was crewed by two workers at the time of the incident. Activists, unions and Ohio lawmakers, however, have blamed the crash on a broader culture of leaving safety to the railroads’ discretion, rather than federal regulations or what workers say they need.

Two-person crews were one of the top demands of a coalition of rail unions in late 2022. Although leadership reached a tentative agreement with rail operators, it was rejected by the rank-and-file members in a vote. Congress passed a bill forcing the agreement, which President Biden signed. The Tuesday rule marks one of the only changes made to rail safety since the derailment that was not a voluntary commitment by railroad operators.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who co-sponsored rail safety legislation with Sen. JD Vance (R-Ohio) in the wake of the East Palestine crash, praised the rule Tuesday morning, but said the bill was also necessary to reap the rule’s safety benefits. Vance and Brown have expressed confidence that, if given a floor vote, the measure would pass with a filibuster-proof majority.

“Big rail lobbyists will do everything they can to roll this back. We must pass our bipartisan rail safety bill to make these changes permanent & require the railroads to do more to prevent derailments,” Brown said in a post on X, formerly Twitter.

The Hill has reached out to Vance’s office for comment.

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