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Despite Youngkin veto, feds mandate rail crew minimum

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(The Center Square) — Gov. Glenn Youngkin vetoed a bill in mid-March resembling a policy that has since become federally mandated: Freight and passenger trains must now have minimum crews of two people.

Virginia’s bill would have only established the requirement for freight trains. The bill came close to failing in the House and Senate, though similar bills passed in 12 states since the February 2023 derailment of a train carrying toxic chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio. The train was crewed by three people and cleanup from the spill is still in progress.

House Bill 385 was defeated in its first House vote 50-50, with the Speaker, Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, voting no. But it appeared Scott had done so by mistake when the House reconsidered the action moments later and he changed to a yes vote, laughing and apologizing to Del. Shelly Simonds, D-Newport News, who patroned the bill.

Though most of the bills passed by the General Assembly were passed with unanimous or near-unanimous support, the rest often passed predominantly along party lines, sometimes with the aid of a few Republicans that frequently crossed over, adding to the Democratic majority. Democrats have a two-seat majority in the House and Senate – 51-49 and 21-19.

The legislation passed 20-19 in the Senate, with Sen. Angela Williams Graves, D-Norfolk, declining to cast a vote.

When the bill was first presented before a House subcommittee, union representatives from the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen testified on its behalf, arguing for the necessity of minimum two-person crews.

“Long story short, this is about safety. This is a safety bill,” said Ronnie Hobbs, Virginia’s legislative director for the SMART Union.

Tim Craver, with the Brotherhood, echoed Hobbs’ message.

“If something goes wrong, I need to be up front to move the train in order to cut the road crossings. [Someone else] needs to be back there to find out what’s going on,” Craver said.

Several organizations, including the Virginia Railroad Association, CSX Transportation, the Virginia Maritime Association and the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, opposed the bill.

Several opposers noted it’s common practice for two people to man most trains, to which the subcommittee Chair Richard Sullivan, D-Fairfax, raised a question.

“Testimony has been that current practice is two, the federal regs are going to be two – how would this send a signal that we’re somehow not ‘open for business?’” Sullivan said, referring to a claim from Virginia Deputy Secretary of Transportation Rachel Jones that such a law in Virginia would send “mixed signals” to corporations wanting to do business in the commonwealth.

Jones explained that the federal regulations might allow exceptions to the rule of two, whereas the Virginia law would always require two.

“We think that, as a general matter, two will be [required], but there will be different instances where maybe there are certain automations within a train yard itself that might not require two. There may be certain instances where it’s not just a blanket rule of two,” Jones said, “based upon a deeper dive into operations and exactly what is required.”

The federal rule does have some exceptions, like “certain identified one-person train crew operations that do not pose significant safety risks to railroad employees, the public, or the environment.”

Virginia-based think tank the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy agrees with the deputy secretary that a federal policy is, in this case, better than the proposed state policy.

“The federal regulation increases the cost of freight all across the country, but now you don’t have the problem of different rules in different states,” Derrick Max, the Institute’s president, told The Center Square.

Youngkin sharply criticized the proposed Virginia legislation in his veto statement, contending that it would negatively affect economic progress, the supply chain, other components of the transportation sector and the rail industry’s technology and innovation in the commonwealth.

“While I support the goal of improving safety within the rail industry, the proposed methods appear premature and lack the necessary nuance required for effective regulation,” Youngkin wrote. “Mandating crew sizes, as proposed, is a blunt regulatory tool that encroaches upon the established mechanisms for railroads and unions to negotiate staffing and scheduling matters through collective bargaining.”

He also cited federal reports that he claimed do “not conclusively support the notion that two-person crews are inherently safer.”

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