The 116th Congress appears to have learned none of the lessons of its predecessors. In 2017, the Department of Transportation, under then-President Barack Obama, issued a notice of proposed rulemaking to require all freight rail operations to have at least two members aboard. This rule was never implemented.
In 2017, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) introduced the Safe Freight Act, H.R. 233, which would have made this rule law. After another year of inaction, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) tried to move the needle by introducing a Senate version of the legislation, S. 2360. It is now 2019. Neither bill has gotten any traction, and Heitkamp has since been voted out of office by a wide margin. It has been made abundantly clear: The Safe Freight Act is bad policy.
Despite all of this, the rumor in Washington is that lawmakers are once again gearing up to push the Safe Freight Act. If there are two things career politicians are good at, it is refusing to let go of bad ideas, and getting too involved in the everyday lives of Americans. The Safe Freight Act combines both habits into one piece of legislation.
Proponents of the Safe Freight Act and mandated minimum crew sizes claim they are acting in the name of safety. However, even the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the division of DOT tasked with overseeing the original proposed rule, acknowledged, “[We] 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.”
However, organizations that have experience in this field and with the actual day-to-day operations of freight trains understand that there are cases in which a one-man crew can be preferable to the alternative. Take, for example, the Indiana Railroad Company. They came out and extolled the virtues of one-man crew sizes, saying that they are “ideal for trains that don’t need any intermediate switching or require the engineer to leave the cab for any reason, such as trains that complete short runs from point A to point B.”
Perhaps recognizing that there are few convincing safety arguments at their disposal, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have begun grasping at straws. Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) actually made the argument that two-person crews are necessary in case one person gets tired. By this logic, no job in the entire country can be done by one person, because there is always the possibility of fatigue. The law should not be written to always account for the worst-case scenario, but to implement common-sense safety measures. It is not the duty of Congress or the bureaucracy to protect everyone from every potential pitfall.
It is altogether unsurprising that industry experts know more than Washington bureaucrats and members of Congress who think riding the Amtrak qualifies them to dictate what is best for railroads. Like every other industry, those who work in the freight rail industry know what types of crews will work best for certain operations than federal legislators or regulators do. They should be allowed to negotiate their own crew sizes internally with labor leaders, and industry experts without outside interference.
As with other regulations and intrusions into the free market, the Safe Freight Act would have a chilling effect on innovation. Tech companies are getting closer and closer to making autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles a reality. These vehicles promise more investment in our economy and numerous benefits for human efficiency and productivity. With crew size regulations in force, this would limit the applicability of any autonomous rail technology that may develop in the near future. Given these limitations, investment and development of such technology would slow to a crawl or even a stop.
In fact, over a year ago, a freight train in Australia completed a 60-mile trip without any humans on board as backup. Rio Tinto, an Australian mining company has completed numerous autonomous trips all without incident. They are displaying the efficiency of such technology. If U.S. lawmakers decide to involve themselves in this industry, they will set America behind in the global race toward innovative technology, and American consumers will bear the burden of increased transportation costs.
Members of Congress should look at the economic success that has been brought by the Trump administration’s deregulatory efforts, and finally accept that the Safe Freight Act is a poor idea that will harm the economy, and is doomed to failure as it has been time and time again. They should instead look for ways to expand on that deregulatory success and let the freight rail industry thrive unencumbered by government.