Railroad companies warned during a public hearing that a proposed regulation Friday could undermine innovation by requiring two-man crews.
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) introduced the proposed rule March 14 as a way to improve safety. Freight train crews have become smaller over the years as technology makes human input less necessary. The Association of American Railroads (AAR) warned during the public hearing there is no evidence the proposed regulation will actually increase safety.
“The purpose of this regulatory action is to ensure each railroad properly considers and evaluates the risks that will be introduced to an operation by reducing the existing crew size and that the railroad takes appropriate steps to mitigate those risks,” FRA Chief Safety Officer Robert C. Lauby stated. “[It] will ensure safety and economic costs are not transferred onto the communities and public.”
Lauby added that under the proposed rule, his agency can approve one-man crews so long as it’s deemed safe. Freight trains don’t usually use one-man crews but with improved technology it’s likely to become much more common in the years ahead. There is also the good possibility freight trains might one day become completely automated and operate with no crew at all.
“For the freight rail industry, there is no greater priority than safety, but there are no data supporting this proposed rule and it will provide no safety benefit to railroads, their employees, or the public,” AAR President Edward R. Hamberger said. “While perhaps well-intentioned, the proposed rule is actually misguided.”
Lauby actually admitted there is not a lot of data to support the proposed regulation. He countered the argument, however, by noting there simply isn’t enough one-man crews to provide data. The proposed rule could help mitigate risks before more freight trains start adopting single crews. FRA also plans to do more research as one-man crews and no-man crews become more commonplace.
“Much of the criticism of the proposal revolves around concerns that there is no data to support this rule making,” Lauby continued. “FRA is candid is the proposed rule preamble acknowledging the limitations FRA’s accident reporting data and pointing out there are very few existing one man crew operations.”
The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) believes the proposed rule is merely a veiled attempt to keep railway unions from losing members to technology. The technological shift is a huge problem for railway unions that may lose members to computers. Unions have even supported the Safe Freight Act which had a similar aim to the proposed rule, but it stalled in Congress.
“The proposed two-person crew rule is a naked attempt by the FRA to codify union featherbedding practices,” CEI Transportation Expert Marc Scribner said. “Not only does the FRA’s arbitrary and capricious rule threaten innovation in the railroad industry, in the long-run it could perversely harm safety as error.”
Freight train companies could actually reduce accidents by removing humans as much as possible. Computers cannot get distracted, fall asleep or face all the other problems that come from human error. Nevertheless, automation does come with its own threats as new technologies pose problems not yet understood because it’s so new.
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