Railroads were America’s first large-scale heavy industry. As happened with most industries, the government started by being helpful in the formation of railroads before quickly becoming antagonistic, and finally settling into a routine of intrusive regulations, occasional subsidies, and periodic political grandstanding.
Marc Scribner of Reason described the latter when he said of the Railway Safety Act of 2023 (S. 576): “Unfortunately, the Senate’s bill is nothing more than a hastily assembled package of irrelevant policy proposals that will do little to advance safety, let alone effectively respond to the East Palestine accident.”
One of these hastily assembled irrelevant policy proposals is a curious restriction that would limit trains that are carrying as few as one car of supposedly ‘hazardous’ materials to a maximum speed of 50 miles-per-hour.
This section of the bill has many problems. First, the train which derailed in East Palestine, OH was traveling under 50mph and was in the process of stopping as the derailment took place. Next, the preliminary report of the National Transportation Safety Board shows a safe and methodical approach to train handling—which the safety record of railroads large and small shows takes place thousands of times every day. Finally, nothing in the record shows that ‘high’ train speeds played any role in either the derailment itself or the conditions which caused it.
Yet, the bill’s sponsors remain silent on why the provision was inserted into the bill in the first place. They also remain silent on the ultimate result, which will be the dramatic loss of rail capacity. Simply put, if most freight trains are forced to move slower than the 55mph highway speed limit of the 1980s, then railroads will be able to operate fewer trains, meaning that every shipment will take longer and cost more.
That should scare every American because the billions invested since the 1980s have made it cheaper to move important goods such as the food we eat and the lumber we build our houses and furniture with. Without any evidence or justification, the sponsors of S. 576 will make everything in our daily lives more expensive with the stroke of a pen.
Most Americans want to get back to a time where we could expect the economy to thrive, so we must not let ill-conceived legislation stand in our way.