Regulators Going off the Rails on a Crazy Train

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One year after a supply chain crisis caused shortages across the nation, the Biden administration is trying to prevent railroads from modernizing and automating. In the name of safety, the administration wants to ensure that all trains have a minimum of two crewmembers. This is despite the fact that administration concedes that there is no evidence that trains need that to operate safely.

Today, the Federal Railroad Administration(FRA), an agency within the Department of Transportation (DOT), published a notice of proposed rulemaking requiring at least two crew members on trains in all but a handful of situations. Railroads could petition to allow for automated trains with less than two crew members but the FRA would have the power to veto that.

The notice says that the rulemaking is needed because the industry is expected to “implement upgrades” to its existing technologies and “otherwise look to introduce operational efficiencies”—that is, automate. The proposed rule would “ensure that trains are adequately staffed for their intended operation and railroads have appropriate safeguards in place.”

The rule would aid unions that represent railroad workers, who have long called for minimum crew regulations. The 202,000-member Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers (SMART) union has lost almost 5,000 members in the last five years. President Biden has promised unions that he’d deliver on that. The industry’s labor issues have been a major for the Biden administration. Earlier this year it formed an emergency panel to intervene in stalled labor contract negotiations.

If there is any form of transportation that should be on the leading edge of automation, it is trains, which don’t use public roads or the skies. Up until the 1990s, rail lines utilized three or more crew members. There were about three accidents per 10 million miles of railways traveled in 1992, according to data from the American Association of Railroads. In the decades since, the standard crew size has shrunk down to one engineer and one conductor. Some trains have used just one engineer. The rate of accidents has fallen to one accident per million miles.

DOT has established several times that there is no proof that trains need a minimum of two crew members to operate safely. The Obama administration had attempted in 2016 to establish the two-crew member minimum rule, also at the behest of rail industry unions. The DOT found that “FRA cannot provide reliable or conclusive statistical data to suggest whether one-person crew operations are generally safer or less safe than multiple-person crew operations.” DOT reaffirmed the finding three years later. The effort was dropped under the Trump administration when DOT determined that there was no justification for it.

Thursday’s proposed notice argues that the absence of any evidence that safety is tied to crew size doesn’t mean that one-person crews have been proven to be safe, stating, “The industry’s safety record on one-person train crew operations is not well-developed, with few industry participants, and a negligible record of information.” If the FRA gets its way and the rule is adopted, the industry won’t get a chance to prove otherwise.