Dozens of daily trains that haul cargo such as wheat, aircraft parts and crude oil across Washington state can be required to operate with two-person crews, a federal court has ruled.

The federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday upheld the state’s 2020 crew-size law by ruling that a Trump administration order to require only one-person crews issued in 2019 was arbitrary and “does not implicitly preempt state safety rules.”

That 2019 order, by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), was designed to resist ongoing pressure in Washington and other states to preserve two-person crews, which rail-worker unions argue are needed to protect safety and jobs, even in an age of automation.

“The Trump administration unlawfully attempted to impose a national one-person crew standard that jeopardizes our environment and Washingtonians’ safety …” said state Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

California and Nevada joined with Washington state to sue over the FRA order.

BNSF Railway, the leading freight-train company in Washington, currently operates with two-person crews, based on its union contracts, said railway spokesperson Courtney Wallace.


Amtrak Cascades passenger trains, owned by Washington state, will continue to operate with one engineer in the cab, a conductor roving the train who often helps with navigation and landmarks, and sometimes an assistant conductor, said Janet Matkin, state rail spokesperson. Tuesday’s ruling doesn’t change that, she said.

However, the Association of American Railroads, a defendant in the lawsuit, says that single-crew operations are more economically competitive and have been used for many passenger, local and foreign track routes.

“Congress must reject legislative efforts to require at least two people in the crew, and instead encourage innovation,” the association declared in online commentary.

The Washington state Legislature passed its law last year in the wake of a 2016 Union Pacific oil-train fire in the Columbia River Gorge, blamed on flawed track maintenance, and the December 2017 fatal derailment of an Amtrak train near DuPont, Pierce County, blamed on many factors including inadequate crew training.

The arguments over crew size may resurface in future bargaining or legislation.

Interstate railroad companies have gradually introduced automation, which they say reduces crew needs. On Dec. 29, outgoing Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced that satellite-based positive train control, designed to automatically stop trains before a collision, is now installed nationwide.


The three-judge court ruling mentioned that 1,545 of 1,600 comments supported multiple-crew rules during a FRA comment period starting in 2016 when FRA was proposing a two-person standard.  

Crew standards became an issue after a crude-oil train derailment killed 47 people and burned downtown Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, when the sole crew member didn’t fully secure multiple train brakes. (The Canadian investigation didn’t declare whether a second crew member would have prevented the tragedy, but said solo-crew operations deserve tight scrutiny.)

After President Donald Trump took office, the FRA switched positions and ordered a one-person crew standard. Safety can be achieved instead by a strong accident-response plan, it said.

FRA also argued historical data didn’t prove that one-crew member crashes would have been prevented by a second crew member, except perhaps an “indirect” relationship.

The appeals court judges scoffed at that logic in a footnote Tuesday: “It stands to reason that where a two-person crew avoided an accident that might not have been avoided by a one-person crew, there would be no accident report.”

Beyond that, the court declared even the best response plan wouldn’t quickly aid a disabled train in the Cascade or Sierra mountains in winter.

In past Washington hearings, a conductor mentioned saving a boy’s life because there were two crew members, while an engineer testified that conductors prevented near-crashes, according to Ferguson’s staff.

Ferguson boasted this is his department’s 41st legal victory against the former Trump administration.