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Size Doesn’t Matter for Rail Safety

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Steve Helber, File

As transportation companies and consumers know all too well, it only takes a handful of harrowing experiences for regulators and lawmakers to tighten rules without rhyme or reason. In 2016, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) used a handful of rail disasters as pretext for a proposed rule requiring that freight trains have at least two crew members on board at all times. 

While the FRA’s onerous proposal was recently rescinded, states such as Illinois are on the cusp of enacting their own two-person crew rules. But these state proposals, as well as a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives, would in fact detract from rail safety, encouraging freight shippers to use other - deadlier - forms of transportation, such as trucking. Instead of requiring more rules, federal and state policymakers should lighten the load on rail operators and empower them to make life-saving investments into new, game-changing technology. 

Rail’s waterloo came nearly six years ago in Quebec when an out-of-control train carrying 72 cars of crude oil devastated the village of Lac-Megantic and killed nearly 50 people. Canada succumbed to the urge to “do something” nearly right away, requiring (via an emergency directive) that trains carrying hazardous materials have a minimum of two crew members (even though the Canadian accident investigator didn’t attribute the accident to crew size among the 15 some-odd factors). The FRA eventually followed suit, proposing a similar, now-kiboshed rule despite admitting it “cannot provide reliable or conclusive statistical data to suggest whether one-person crew operations are generally safer or less safe than multiple-person crew operations.” 

Evidence to date shows that equipment and track improvements, as well as automation, are far more important to rail safety than crew size. Mercatus Center senior research fellow Patrick McLaughlin and Regulatory Studies Center research professor Jerry Ellig concluded in a 2016 analysis that declining freight accidents since the 1970s is due to deregulation that has allowed companies to invest in key capital improvements. 

As the result of increased investment and technological progress, rail systems increasingly rely on computer systems that provide far better oversight than additional humans onboard. According to the results of a 2017 simulation modeling how humans and computer systems handle real-world rail tasks, “the presence of automation with or without the conductor made much more of a difference...than the conductor alone.” 

Nonetheless, politicians continue trying to stymie these innovations. Lawmakers in Illinois recently voted to pass legislation that would mandate a two person crew statewide. Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak (D) signed a similar bill into law on May 15. Rep. Todd Young (R-Alaska) recently proposed the Safe Freight Act of 2019 (H.R. 1748) in the U.S. Congress, which would require two-person crews nationwide. These laws will jeopardize safety gains over the past few decades, doubling labor costs and forcing rail operators to curtail investments into automation and rail safety. 

Meanwhile, increased rail operation costs mean that shippers will rely less on trains and increasingly take their products on the road. But trucks have an abysmal safety record in handling dangerous products, regularly spilling products and wreaking considerable havoc.  Per research from the Congressional Research Service, trucks spill around five times more oil than trains per billion-ton miles. 

The conclusion is unavoidable: “railroads consistently spill less crude oil per ton-mile transported than other modes of land transportation.” This data should serve as a wake-up call to policymakers that more rail restrictions would lead to less safety. Easing onerous rules will allow rail operators to focus on computer and technical improvements and test newly-installed “positive train control” systems that automatically stop trains in emergency situations. Unlike crew mandates, these improvements save lives. 

It’s understandable that regulators and lawmakers feel pressure to “do something” after terrible tragedies. But often, that “something” is counterproductive and subtracts from real efforts to improve safety. Ending the push for two-member crew requirements will lead to a better freight system, allowing consumers access to countless products without sacrificing safety. 

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