Senate committee yells ‘all aboard!’ for controversial Railway Safety Act

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The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee approved the Railway Safety Act this morning, with all Democrats and Republican Sens. J.D. Vance (OH) and Eric Schmitt (MO) voting in favor. Notably, ranking member Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who had expressed sympathy with earlier versions, voted against.

Although the current draft has improved somewhat from its previous version, it still benefits Big Labor significantly and increases the power of the secretary of transportation, currently Pete Buttigieg. If enacted, this bill would essentially lead to partial re-regulation of railroads.

There are notable issues with the bill even as it stands now. A major concern is that it continues to mandate a minimum of two-person crews on all freight trains, which has been a long-standing demand by the rail unions. There is no evidence so far that two-person crews contribute to increased rail safety.

The incident that prompted the creation of this act was the Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. That train had three crew members: two regulars and one trainee who did nothing wrong during their shift. Despite this fact, the bill contains a requirement for at least two crew members on every train moving forward.

The current bill also includes several mandates for rulemakings by the transportation secretary on safety requirements for hazardous freight, a prescriptive regulatory framework for detectors, and for visual inspection requirements. All these will require careful analysis to ensure that they are not so burdensome that they increase costs so much for shippers that they instead choose to ship by road, which has been demonstrably more dangerous than rail over the years. Increased road shipment hazards will almost certainly erase any safety benefits of more stringent regulation, and it is imperative that rulemakings take this into account.

Despite the increased powers given to government and the needless concessions to Big Labor, Sen. Vance has made the argument that this is a blow to big government, as Congress imposed a settlement on a railway labor dispute late last year, thereby making the rail companies beneficiaries of government action.

On this, he has a point. CEI labor fellow Sean Higgins told the Wall Street Journal at the time that “Government intervention in the private sector, especially when forcing a contract on parties, should always be a last resort” and said the action could open the door for more interventions.

In this case, the intervention by the Senate is unlikely to be beneficial to railroads.