Federal legislation was introduced in mid-March that would require the nation’s major freight railroads to permanently maintain a minimum of two individuals in the cab of a locomotive. Several states have also introduced similar measures.
Serious arbiters who care about the future of transportation, particularly the movement of freight, should oppose these proposals and recognize them for what they are: mandates wholly incongruent with the innovation occurring across rail and other transportation modes.
Such policy would not improve safety. Instead, it would limit the competitive viability of a privately funded transportation mode and undermine bipartisan infrastructure goals.
Although predictions vary, experts agree that multiple transportation modes will operate within expansive automated networks in the future. Policymakers often welcome this future with open arms. In some cases, they are providing public research dollars to private enterprise to increase the speed of such technological gains, and the benefits that will flow to society as a result.
The federal government also predicts that freight demands will rise by nearly 40 percent by 2040, requiring more optimized delivery networks. Efficient railroads with capacity to handle this growth are essential to the nation’s economy. Railroads are developing and deploying amazing technologies to help deliver that future — including sonar, infrared lasers, ultrasonic technology, and drones. But minimum crew-size laws, like other such attempts to freeze historic methods of train operation in place forever, will substantially discourage innovation.
To prosper in the future, railroads must achieve the same kind of productivity and technological gains as their competitors. Failure to do so will reduce the relative cost effectiveness and efficiency of freight rail service, pushing freight to other transportation modes.
Proponents of crew-size mandates argue that safety requires two people in a locomotive cab. Some even have pointed to a few high-profile accidents. But policymakers could not conclude that these accidents would have been prevented by having a second person in the cab.
These safety arguments have been consistently rejected by independent authorities asked to examine this issue. As the U.S. Department of Transportation itself said in 2016, there is no data to show operations with two people in the locomotive are any safer than those with one. Indeed, some short line railroads and almost all passenger railroads, carrying the nation’s most valuable cargo, operate with one person in the locomotive.
The truth is, based on federal data regarding train accident rates and employee safety, recent years have been the safest in rail history. The train accident rate is down 44 percent since 2000.
Independent analysis has found these safety gains are attributable to prudent investment, maintenance, and a strong safety culture — not prescriptive policies. Railroads invest heavily in safety and work hard to instill a pervasive safety culture.
Indeed, our nation’s railroads have poured an average of $25 billion per year into rail infrastructure, including many significant safety-related investments. Spending increasingly goes towards technological solutions such as Positive Train Control, wayside detectors along the track to assess equipment in real time, and ground-penetrating radar that allows railroads to evaluate infrastructure conditions to prevent accidents.
By the end of 2018, the industry had PTC, which will automatically stop a train before certain accidents caused by human error can occur, operating across more than 80% of the miles required to use the system. Come 2020, railroads will have the system 100 percent implemented. Especially where PTC is in place, it should be obvious that there is no plausible safety-related justification for crew size mandates.
Ultimately, rail staffing has been and should remain a matter for collective bargaining. Labor and management have bargained over crew size for almost 100 years. Since 1980, when the industry was economically deregulated, and as technology has improved, crew sizes at the major freight railroads have been gradually reduced through collective bargaining from five to three to two. Safety statistics have improved at a staggering pace throughout this period, especially the rate of accidents caused by human factors.
Railroads are committed to good faith deliberations on all labor issues, including this one, and seek collaboration with their labor partners to chart the best path forward.
Policymakers and the public must understand that running a safe and efficient railroad is in the best interest of railroad companies, rail employees, customers, and the nation. Rather than be against something, lawmakers and industry together should be for something — namely, increasingly the safe and efficient movement of more goods and people.
Ian Jefferies is president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads.