The Texas economy, vast and powerful, has for more than 150 years been closely connected to private freight railroads. In 2017 alone, the Lone Star State was home to more than 50 railroad companies, 10,000 some railroad miles and more than 17,000 railroad workers.
Fort Worth, home to BNSF Railway, has especially deep railroad roots — a railroad town that still today serves as the gateway to the West for many of the industry’s economic sectors to reach global markets.
In many ways, the sector embodies the entrepreneurial and limited government spirit that makes Texas so unique and critical: railroads fund their own infrastructure and work with customers from the chemical to energy to agriculture sectors help make our way of life possible.
According to the Association of American Railroads, carriers moved 442,600 carloads of chemicals in 2018 manufactured in Texas. Consumers, who enjoy an estimated $10 billion in annual benefits from the sector, ultimately win, as these movements reduce carbon emissions and avoid highway deterioration.
And since this transportation mode owes so much of its success to a decision nearly 40 years ago to remove the government from micromanaging its operations, it is especially critical that today’s policymakers take a similar approach as the industry charts its path in an e-commerce-driven world where freight movement will grow exponentially.
Most immediately, this means that lawmakers such as Eddie Bernice Johnson and Kay Granger of the Dallas Fort Worth area reject efforts introduced in both the House and Senate to dictate the precise way to staff a freight train. The lawmakers sit on committees that often weigh in on rail issues.
While it’s tempting to assume that two-person crews are automatically safer than one-person crews, there’s no indication that it’s true.
In May 2019, the Federal Railroad Administration, the national safety regulator for railroads, definitively decided that regulation is not needed in this area. It would only chill investment and innovation, the FRA concluded, even if labor union leaders worried more about their leadership posts than their members vocally pushed for a federal mandate.
The previous administration said itself in 2016, that it “...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.”
The National Transportation Safety Board argued in the past that flexibility was needed: “Based on our limited experience in this and other modes, we don’t find that two-person (train) crews offer a safety benefit.”
Single-person crews are already widely used by passenger rail agencies, including Amtrak and commuter trains such as DART, and some regional freight operators in the United States.
In countries such as France, Germany, Sweden and Australia, single-person crews are the dominant practice on freight trains — and there’s no evidence that accidents are more common as a result.
Rather than enhance safety, mandating two-person crews could make rail operations more dangerous by crippling railroads’ ability to control costs and fund equipment upgrades.
Rail operators have already invested unprecedented resources in modernizing the safety features of America’s rail network. Positive train control (PTC) systems, which are already in use on many routes maintained by the biggest railroads, use GPS tracking and computers to mitigate human error.
Automation has been proved to dramatically improve safety in other transportation sectors, and PTC systems will do the same for trains. As PTC is fully implemented in the years ahead and technological upgrades improve on freight rail’s already-impressive safety record, single-person crews will make sense on many rail networks.
Mandating two-person crews, even though technological improvements allow for safe single-person operations, would significantly raise labor costs, limit railroads’ competitiveness against intermodal rivals, and increase shipping costs. Ultimately, many of these costs would be borne by consumers.
By raising the operating costs of freight railroads, mandating minimum crew size would have the ironic effect of incentivizing heavier reliance on trucks, which is five times more dangerous than rail. That’s an odd way to promote safety.
To maintain their strong safety record and continue to serve their customers efficiently, rail operators need the ability to innovate with new technology, without the burden of unyielding and outdated regulations.