DOT Compromises Safety and Efficiency for Union Favoritism

Today, a draft proposed rule from the Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration has been making the rounds. It will be published in the Federal Register tomorrow and comments will be due on May 16. The aim is to require that all trains have at least two crewmembers in the cab unless they are explicitly approved to operate single-crewmember trains. It is nothing more than government-imposed union featherbedding, will offer no safety benefits, and will impose nontrivial costs.

In Congress, legislation known as the Safe Freight Act has been repeatedly introduced at the behest of railroad unions that would be even worse by not permitting railroads to demonstrate to regulators that they can safely operate a train with a single-person crew.

Currently, freight railroads operate two-person crews on most of the nation’s rail network, but are looking forward to the day when one-person and perhaps “drone” trains that are completely computer-controlled are possible due to advances in technology. The Association of American Railroads, which represents North American freight and passenger railroads, is understandably opposed to this proposed rule. But AAR President Ed Hamberger makes an interesting aside about DOT’s contradictory position on automation:

Hamberger also noted with irony that the proposed rule comes from the Department of Transportation (DOT) at the same time as that agency is enthusiastically promoting autonomous vehicle technology, which would facilitate platoons of un-manned trucks on our nation's highways. The same DOT is determining concrete guidelines for driverless cars, but offers absolutely no guidance to the railroads to move to one-person crews.

“The freight rail industry is spending billions to automate operations inside freight locomotives. Instead of piling on additional, duplicative regulatory costs that offer no incremental safety benefit, the government should focus on creating an environment that fuels innovation and technological advancement in furtherance of safety,” concluded Hamberger.

Since 2008, the federal government has forced railroads to spend billions of dollars to install a technology called positive train control (PTC), which among other things allows automatic and centralized control of train movements. The whole point of PTC is to reduce the importance of train crews, who as human beings can make mistakes with dangerous consequences.

With this new proposed rule, the FRA is basically undercutting the whole rationale for the PTC mandate by arguing PTC itself creates new human factors risks, as engineers may be distracted by the new-fangled technology that has assumed some of their previous responsibilities. There is likely an element of truth to this claim, but it is also true that burdening railroads with more costly regulations will delay their uptake of new superior safety technologies. It is also likely true that the PTC mandate, which addresses extremely rare accidents, misallocated resources away from superior safety initiatives such as improving grade crossings and completing routine maintenance (the vast majority of people killed by trains are tresspassers or in cars attempting to cross the tracks ahead of a train), a problem acknowledged by both the Government Accountability Office and Congressional Research Service.

An honest benefit-cost analysis would almost certainly show this proposed rule does more harm than good. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has evidently decided to prioritize union paybacks over safety. But if the administration comes to its senses and decides to adopt a pro-safety and pro-innovation stance, the FRA should discontinue this rulemaking or, short of that, adopt Regulatory Alternative 1, which reads:

One alternative is for FRA to not require railroads using or aspiring to use less than two person crews to attest but establish a data-collection process in which FRA would collect the data necessary to identify problematic one-person operations, conduct further review of an operation if warranted by the data, and use existing emergency authority to take action against an unsafe one-person crew operation. The advantages of this alternative is that it would provide FRA comprehensive information about one-person crew operations and allow railroads the flexibility to continue or start up less than two-person crews without incurring the cost of FRA approval.