Overregulating freight rail risks progress on safety
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Amid the flurry of deregulation in Washington that is cutting unnecessary red tape for industries and businesses, legislation has quietly resurfaced in Congress that would dictate how freight rail operators manage personnel on their trains outside the confines of a proven collective bargaining process. While intended to promote safety, this is a misguided approach unsupported by facts and could actually hinder the continued innovation that has made freight rail safer than ever.

The proposals in Congress, which would mandate two people in the cab of all trains at all times for the foreseeable future, is based on a flawed presumption that more people in a train cab inherently leads to greater safety. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that it is true today and worse still, such policy is patently anti-innovation that could leave this critical industry in the dustbin as the trucking sector barrels toward fully autonomous operations.

Even federal regulators who support this type of proposal have been unable to provide data to back it up. In 2016, when the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) proposed a minimum crew-size rule, it was unable to offer evidence that showed two-person crews are safer than one-person crews. A recent Australian study also found that there is no additional safety benefit with an increase in crew size, demonstrating how modern technology has rendered old ways of operating railroads obsolete.

The two-person crew proposals ignore the enormous safety gains freight railroads have made. FRA data show the industry achieved record lows last year in accidents caused by track or human failures. Freight rail accident rates have fallen by more than 80 percent since the 1980s.

“Railroads have said repeatedly their goal is zero accidents, and they are working every day to achieve that goal,” says former National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Managing Director Peter Goelz. “The record reflects the positive progress made.”

As one of the most efficient and cost-effective ways to move goods around the U.S., freight rail has thrived without excessive regulation. Moving goods by rail eases highway congestion, saves energy, and reduces carbon emissions. This has largely been possible because private freight rail companies overwhelmingly own, maintain, and invest in the rail lines where their trains run.

An important part of this investment is Positive Train Control (PTC) braking technology, an innovative safety technology freight railroads are in the process of implementing on trains and tracks across the country. PTC combines technologies that monitor train speed, movement and authorization signals on the tracks. Although freight rail is already one of the safest industries in the U.S., PTC will make it even safer by preventing certain accidents caused by human error — possibly creating efficiencies that could ultimately render a second person in a train cab at least moot, if not a distraction that would hinder safety.

Put simply, Congress championed PTC in mandating its installation. Railroads ought to be able to reap the rewards of this massive private investment as a result.

Moreover, ensuring PTC and other safety enhancing technologies continue to have room to develop is vital for American innovation and competitiveness. Telling railroads they could never follow the path of freight moving competitors is a quick way to discourage the spending needed to reach zero accidents one day.

With these massive, privately funded investments already underway and freight rail operators on track to meet their installation and implementation deadlines, regulating a minimum crew size for railroads is an extraneous solution to an imaginary problem. Instead, Congress should focus on ensuring freight rail can continue making the investments necessary to keep freight rail as safe as possible for workers and communities.

Russ Brown is the CEO of RWP Labor, a positive labor relations consulting firm, and is on the Board of Directors for the North American Transportation Employee Relations Association (NATERA).