OPINION: Train Safety Requires Innovation, Not Federal Rules

Amtrak train Shutterstock/EQRoy

Ross Marchand Director of Policy, Taxpayers Protection Alliance
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Over the years, unfortunate train collisions and derailments have left lawmakers and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) scrambling to regulate out risk.

There have been positive developments as many trains are being equipped with technologies that automatically stop a locomotive before an accident happens. The agency has also put a halt to costly regulations, such as electronic air braking, that detracted and distracted from actual safety improvements.

Unfortunately, though, not all bodes well on the regulatory front. Trouble began in 2016 when the FRA proposed a minimum two-person crew size for all railroad operations, with some exceptions for operations deemed non-threatening to employees or consumers. The Safe Freight Act of 2017 (H.R. 233), introduced this Congress by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), is the latest legislative iteration of the FRA’s proposed rule.

Whether by executive action or legislative fiat, minimum crew requirements discourage innovation throughout the railroad sector and increase prices for millions of Americans across the country. Consumers relying on rail for the safe, affordable delivery of goods deserve better than a stealth tax via outdated regulations.

Whether using rail, air or automobile, travelers and consumers expect that some necessary safety precautions will affect the cost of the particular mode of travel. Airbags, for instance, run into the thousands of dollars but have a long track record of saving lives and providing peace of mind. But two-member crew sizes are simply not in the same league.

Rail operators have been increasingly automating operations, allowing a lone crewmember digital assistance in a perilous situation. In fact, the FRA admits that it lacks any evidence showing that multi-person crew sizes are better. Patrick Maclaughlin of the Mercatus Center tallies 40 instances of the FRA stating “FRA believes” in the preamble alone. “Belief” and “certainty” are two different concepts.

As the regulatory process has come to a standstill, lawmakers have attempted to fill in the void by proposing legislation requiring multi-person crews in rail operations. But just like proposed FRA rules, Rep. Young’s legislation simply has no evidence to back it up. The Australian government summed up the weight of the evidence: “two drivers are good in some situations some of the time;” particularly in remote areas or in cases with high potential for fatigue.

But how will unregulated rail operators know which setup is best for which situation? Rail companies have a great record of innovating and pursuing the most safety-effective and cost-effective solution, but only when government stays out of the way.

In fact, the railways least touched by government intervention have made the most progress in safety technology. According to data from the FRA, all major freight railroads are now nearly complete in installing PTC systems, despite the gargantuan cost and meticulous planning details associated with implementation.

Unfortunately, passenger rail has not been nearly as promising. PTC systems are in place on only a quarter of all required rail miles, with little progress over time. Amtrak, the primary intercity passenger rail player in the United States, has little incentive to adopt a proactive approach to safety issues.

Amtrak’s continued subsidization by taxpayers, coupled with its monopoly on intercity tracks, gives little incentive for the company to operate in the best interests of customers. Amtrak policies that delegate safety training to management employees with little experience receive little pushback from the outside because of Amtrak’s entrenched position within the transportation industry.

Clearly, the government could stand to impose more safety accountabilities on the rail lines already subsidized by taxpayers. But for the vast majority of rail endeavors viable on the private market, heavy-handed regulations are backed by little evidence are counterproductive.

Instead of asking which rules should be imposed on carriers, policymakers should seek to lower costs for passengers and consumers that regularly depend on the rail. Shelving misguided rules and legislation is the first step to bring down prices across the board.  

Ross Marchand is the director of policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.

Ross Marchand