Gov. Youngkin vetoes two-crew minimum bill in defiance of railroad unions

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Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin recently vetoed a slew of bills by the commonwealth legislature. One rejection in particular was well-deserved: nixing an ill-advised proposal to require “a crew of at least two qualified individuals on all trains, locomotives, or light engines used in connection with moving freight.”

The legislation was officially called “SB 143 Railroad safety; requirements for railroad companies.” Various media outlets including the Washington Post echoed the railroad safety claim. Yet there is little reason to believe the legislation would have made the rail industry any safer. The legislation was rather a gift to railway unions who have aggressively been pushing for the two-crew minimum to maintain their membership numbers.

Youngkin rejected the unions’ argument. In his statement explaining the vetoes, he said, “According to reports from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the available evidence does not conclusively support the notion that two-person crews are inherently safer.”

The rail industry is heavily automated. Unlike other forms of transportation, it runs on dedicated lines, giving it an inbuilt safety advantage. There is no correlation between crew size and the accident rate.

Trains averaged three or more engineers up until 1992. Since then, a two-person crew has been the industry standard and the industry has been experimenting with one-person crews. The rate of accidents and incidents in 1991 was 50.8 per million train miles, according to data from the Federal Railroad Administration’s Office of Safety Analysis. The rate in 2022 was 17.3 per million train miles.

Nevertheless, a two-crew minimum mandate has been a priority of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Union (SMART). The union is trying to protect its members’ jobs by pressing for crew size minimums, using safety as a rationale. 

Protecting its members is laudable, but if any industry should be at the leading edge of automation, it is railways. A two-crew minimum mandate serves as a drag on that.

The governor added that “the proposed regulations would impose constraints on our supply chain, impeding our ability to manage inflation and cope with rising costs of living and doing business in Virginia. The economic repercussions pose a genuine threat to the stability of our economy.”

That’s doubly important because another supply chain crisis may yet happen this year thanks to ongoing contract talks between the International Longshoremen’s Association and west coast sea ports.