CHESAPEAKE, Va. (WAVY) — Virginia Delegate Shelly Simonds is renewing an effort that she says will improve railroad safety for both rail workers and communities throughout Virginia.
The Democrat who represents part of Newport News in the 94th District announced the Railroad Safety and Security Bill (House Bill No. 1520) on Thursday in the South Norfolk section of Chesapeake. The area is one of several in Hampton Roads that frequently faces crippling gridlock due to trains blocking the road, sometimes for more than an hour at a time.
The announcement comes just about a month after a labor agreement at the national level that avoided a rail strike right before the holidays. The deal netted rail workers pay increases and other benefits but failed to include paid sick leave — a key measure sought by labor — and other quality-of-life boosts, workers said.
Simonds, alongside Ronnie Hobbs, the Virginia Director of the SMART railway workers union, said on Thursday they were disappointed sick leave wasn’t included but hope their bill brings needed changes.
HB 1520 will set a maximum train length of 8,500 feet, or just over 1 and a half miles, to prevent blocked roads and require rail companies to maintain areas near the tracks where workers operate.
And the priority will be requiring train companies operating in Virginia to have at least a two-person crew aboard.
“Currently no railroad company in Virginia is using a one-person crew but they are doing so in other states which poses a clear safety hazard in case of emergencies,” Simonds says.
For example, Hobbs said having two people aboard, a conductor and engineer, allows one or the other to jump in in the case of a medical emergency, or uncouple trains at crossings to allow emergency vehicles and other traffic to pass.
Railroad companies have argued moving the conductor to a ground-based job rather than inside the train with an engineer (the person who drives the train) allows for a better and more consistent schedule, a common complaint from rail workers.
Though Hobbs insists safety is still the number one priority for workers. On Thursday he recounted how he was able to save a fellow rail worker who lost his leg on the track a few years ago.
“I was the guy on that train that went down there and was able to render first aid to him so he could get back to the hospital,” Hobbs said. “And he’s lost his leg but he survived. That why this bill touches me personally.”
“There’s a lot of automation going on in the railroad industry, but it’s people who save each other’s lives,” Simonds said. “If there’s an emergency you need a guy like Ronnie to be there to offer aid and assistance in an emergency situation.”
HB 1520 adds on to current Virginia law that makes it illegal for trains to block an intersection at a dead stop for more than five minutes for non-emergency reasons. Past enforcement efforts haven’t been successful due to conflict with federal oversight, but WAVY reported earlier this year that Suffolk has had success in limiting blocked railroad crossings by reporting them to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Virginia State Corporation Commission (SCC.)
Similar bills requiring two-person operation have failed in the General Assembly in the past, but have passed in other states such as Maryland and West Virginia, but there’s no national standard.
“Virginians are really hyper aware now about how important railroad workers and the railroad are to our state economy,” Simonds said. “… I do think it’s the General Assembly’s responsibility as trains automate, and other states they’ve gone to one-person crews, we need to hold the industry accountable to make sure safety is at the forefront.”
The Federal Railroad Administration, which first suggested a two-person rule back in 2016, is currently reviewing public comments on the proposal. Rail companies have said there’s no evidence that two-person crews are safer, and say “megatrains” that can run around 3 miles long are not the norm.
Hobbs and Simonds both acknowledged it will be challenging to get it passed, but hopes there will be bipartisan support, including from Gov. Glenn Youngkin.
“I am asking, I am begging Governor Youngkin, please move this bill through, cause this just isn’t about jobs … it’s about Virginians … it’s about making sure we can open up these crossings, to make sure at the end of the day just because you leave near the railroad tracks shouldn’t make you a second-rate citizen.”
The General Assembly is set to reconvene on Wednesday, January 11 in Richmond.