RICHMOND -- Norfolk Southern and CSX say repeal of the Virginia law requiring them to have a caboose on freight trains would save them $6 million annually in operating costs and would mitigate -- and possibly prevent -- future rate increases.

Lobbying, which included Norfolk Southern Corp. taking a group of lawmakers on a Roanoke-to-Martinsville train ride, has emphasized economics and played down the emotion that surrounded an attempt to repeal the law in 1979.

"There's a lot of tradition and romance associated with the things," Joseph Sailor told the Roanoke Times & World-News in an interview published Sunday, acknowledging that may be the biggest impediment to the repeal drive.

The 1914 safety act is an antiquated piece of tradition they can no longer afford, the railroads said.

Charles Davis of CSX Corp. told the newspaper that the situation is similar to a divisive labor-management dispute during the 1970s, but that the railroads in this instance are saying "this is not a jobs issue."

For instance, the law requires a caboose, but it does not say the caboose must be staffed. Many cabooses are empty, and the size of railroad crews has been trimmed in recent union agreements. "It's just a matter of dragging the doggone things around," Sailor told the newspaper.

In 1979, unions opposed a proposal to repeal of the law, and the Virginia General Assembly rejected the plan.

Cabooses were a valuable part of trains, serving as the eyes and ears of engineers in preventing rear-end accidents, before being eclipsed by radios and modern technology.

Only one other state, Montana, has a mandatory caboose law, and national statistics suggest that trains without cabooses are just as safe -- if not safer -- than ones with the cars, Sailor told the newspaper.