Under Legislation, Policymakers Would Micromanage Freight Rail Employment

Republicans despise federal micromanagement, but that hasn’t kept Rep. Don Young of Alaska from hopping aboard the Washington-Knows-Best Express.

By Elliott Long, Senior Economic Policy Analyst | Progressive Policy Institute

Republicans despise federal micromanagement, but that hasn’t kept Rep. Don Young of Alaska from hopping aboard the Washington-Knows-Best Express. He recently introduced a bill mandating that freight trains have a minimum of two crew members on board trains at all times.

While Young justifies his bill on safety grounds, the bill also appears to reflect pressure from rail workers’ unions fearful that automation is putting their members out of jobs.

Here’s the backstory: Following the fatal 2008 Chatsworth train collision in Los Angeles, President Bush signed the Rail Safety Improvement Act into law. The law required freight railroads, by the end of 2020, to integrate Positive Train Control (PTC) — a nationwide system of technologies that constantly process thousands of data points to stop a train before human error-caused accidents occur. One of the benefits of PTC was that it was a win-win for consumers and the railroads, enhancing safety and allowing railroads to boost productivity by moving to one-person crews somewhere down the road.

Proponents of crew size mandates worry that once it’s fully implemented PTC could jeopardize safety by allowing railroads to move from two- to one-person crews. “There is no doubt that the only safe rail operation is one that includes at a minimum a certified conductor and a certified locomotive engineer,” John Previsich, President of the Transportation Division at Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, said.

Young’s bill, which also has some Democratic support, attempts to codify a rule proposed by Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) bureaucrats in the waning days of the Obama administration. Since then, states such as Colorado and Illinois have also passed or introduced legislation requiring two-person crews.

But a 2015 study by consulting firm Oliver Wyman found the move from two-person to one-person crews, enabled by PTC, would save between $1.1 and $2.5 billion by 2029, all without sacrificing operational safety. Similarly, the Association for American Railroads recognizes “Technology and modern staffing models can make freight railroads safer, more efficient and more productive. Crew size mandates would hinder these efficiencies and divert traffic from rail to highway-using trucks.”

There is no data showing that single-person crews are less safe than two-person crews. Single-person crews are frequently employed in the European Union and Australia. Crew sizes have steadily been reduced in the U.S. from the five-person operations of the 1970s to today’s two-person operations, with accident rates falling by more than 80 percent over that timeframe. And one-person crews have safely been utilized in commuter trains for years.

Regulation undoubtedly plays a crucial role in setting standards for consumer health and safety and ensuring fair markets. But regulations must provide industries with the certainty to invest finite resources and make sound business decisions — not set bad precedent for future compliance. PTC came at a substantial price to railroad companies, estimated at more than $10 billion.

These crew size mandates would exclude freight rail from the increased productivity of the digital age, even with the widespread anticipation of self-driving cars and semis. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, labor productivity for rail transportation has increased only 16 percent over the past decade, about the same as the sluggish rate across the broader U.S. economy. Encouraging freight rail to implement PTC would revive productivity growth and reduce the cost to bring products to market for the industries freight serves — energy, agriculture, and manufacturing to name a few.

In fact, investment and technology upgrades by railroads have enabled freight to realize vital safety gains since 2008. Freight railroads have invested $245.3 billion over the last decade in infrastructure and equipment. Ultrasound, drones, and radar have allowed railroads to find and repair track and equipment issues before they happen. Railroad accidents have been reduced significantly as a result, according to data from the FRA. The overall train accident rate is down 36 percent since 2008, track-caused accidents by 48 percent and human error-caused accidents by 35 percent.

PTC coming online promises to decline accident rates even more. According to forecasts from the Federal Highway Administration, total U.S. freight shipments are set to rise 43 percent by 2045. Crew size mandates on freight trains would divert investment away from improving safety, cutting transportation costs, and growing America’s rail network to meet future demand, all while needlessly increasing labor costs when accident rates have been declining for decades.

Radically Pragmatic. We seek to advance progressive, market-friendly ideas that promote American innovation, economic growth, and wider opportunity.

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