The aerial spotters were looking for any number of behaviors that deviate from the railroad’s rule book, from passing between railcars that are less than 100 feet apart to climbing off moving equipment.
The response from the railroad workers’ union? Urging the rank and file to flood Union Pacific’s safety hotline with complaints that the drones make their jobs more dangerous.
Workers say that rather than promote safety, the drones create a hazard by distracting them when they should be laser-focused while around 200-ton locomotives and railcars moving along the tracks, according to Steve Simpson, general chairperson with the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers. “They are no longer looking ahead or at their task at hand,” he said. “They’re looking up.”
Mr. Simpson, whose general committee represents 1,600 conductors, engineers and other rail workers in the southern U.S., also advises members on complaints to the Federal Aviation Administration and Federal Railroad Administration. He said there is no way to distinguish a drone flown by Union Pacific from one operated by an unauthorized party.
As of March 1, Union Pacific temporarily grounded the aerial observation so it can share its findings with the unions but plans to resume the program in coming weeks. “Their leadership will help us establish a collaborative process to address unsafe behaviors and protect employees,” Union Pacific spokeswoman Raquel Espinoza said.
Mr. Simpson said he suspects safety isn’t the company’s only motivation. Workers see drones as a means to discipline them, he said, with escalating penalties that can lead to termination. There is no indication anyone has been fired for an infraction spotted from up to 400 feet in the air, but Mr. Simpson said workers have been cited for violations as a result.
Ms. Espinoza said Union Pacific has been using drones to conduct federally mandated field testing and will coach employees to correct behavior that could cause serious injury. “We are finding drones are valuable tools that can help us reach our ultimate goal of operating in an incident-free environment and ensure employees go home safely,” Ms. Espinoza said. She added that the company hotline has received only one complaint about the use of drones.
Union Pacific last year reported its second safest year on record, though the reportable personal-injury rate of 0.79 per 200,000 employee hours was 5% higher than in 2016. The amount of money it sets aside for personal-injury liability has declined in each of the past three years.
Drone use is still in its infancy in the railroad industry. Companies have sought to incorporate it into operations to inspect bridges and track, assess damage after natural disasters and map their networks. Other proposed or active uses have included spotting trespassers, air-quality tests and aerial photography.
Earl Lawrence, who runs the FAA’s drone-integration office, said he was unaware of any other industries where employers are using drones to enforce safety rules. “Every day we see inventive ways of using aerial platforms,” he said.
Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s BNSF railroad, which, like Union Pacific, operates in the Western U.S., has worked closely with the FAA to find ways to incorporate drones into its operations. After obtaining waivers to fly drones outside the line of sight of their operators, BNSF in 2015 flew an unmanned, fixed-wing aircraft over 270 miles in New Mexico to inspect tracks. The railroad said it was the first commercially operated drone to fly beyond its pilot’s line of sight within the lower 48 states.
Since then, BNSF has received permission to conduct tests on more than 2,000 miles of track, including at night.
Norfolk Southern Corp. uses drones only for bridge inspections, a spokeswoman said. CSX uses the aircraft to monitor its rail network, collect data and conduct security checks. Drones also have been used as part of installing so-called positive train control, a new, federally mandated safety system, a spokesman said.
Union Pacific first received FAA approval to use drones in 2015. It now has 126 employees on staff certified to fly them and has used them to inspect bridges and flood damage, among other uses. Union Pacific plans to have as many as 250 trained drone pilots by the end of 2018 and is also looking into self-flying drones.
Union Pacific first deployed drones to monitor employees in December 2017 at a rail facility in Ste. Genevieve, Mo., later expanding to 14 locations. While railroads already make use of fixed cameras to monitor operations, aerial footage provides a new vantage point for yardmasters in facilities that can be more than 100 tracks wide and scattered with visual obstacles like cars and equipment.
“It’s a useful tool,” said Mr. Simpson, the railroad union leader. “But it’s being used as a discipline tool and that worries me.”
By Paul Ziobro
Write to Paul Ziobro at Paul.Ziobro@wsj.com