By: Ed Hamberger, AAR President & CEO
The Association of American Railroads will hold a first-of-its-kind event in Washington, D.C. on May 15, showcasing scores of innovative technologies that private freight railroads use to make a safe network safer. This includes items that the AAR has spotlighted before — drones, track side detectors and PTC — but also a virtual reality demonstration that allows visitors to experience firsthand what rail workers do when operating the network.
The gathering, which will be attended primarily by legislators and their staff, is a starting point for an important discussion: the future of the rail sector.
Through unrelenting innovation, private freight railroads can face fierce competition. We see the trucking sector — rail’s biggest customer but also biggest competitor — barreling towards at least partial automation. And we know that to compete for the long haul, we will need to similarly streamline certain operations to boost efficiency and keep costs down for our valued customers.
The kicker of it all? For us, or for automobiles, trucks or manufacturers, technological gains will bolster safety and save lives.
Yet change is always hard and evolution takes time. For the rail industry to truly succeed in deploying next-generation solutions, we will need sensible rules and oversight from policymakers, particularly at the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).
AAR’s legal team recently filed information at the FRA on automated technologies in the rail sector to begin having this important discussion in earnest. Improving regulatory processes and removing outdated barriers will help in correcting human error, which causes a third of all rail accidents. Part of this can be achieved by making well-established waiver programs permanent, but also to consider new pilot programs that will allow for increased testing.
As the filing notes, Positive Train Control (PTC) technology, which the freight rail sector is on track to install as mandated by Congress, is living proof that the industry will spend massive sums of private capital on technology that improves outcomes. While PTC is no magic bullet, it will clearly provide great benefits to the network and improve safety.
Therefore, ensuring an FRA that embraces performance-based regulation where appropriate and ensuring that the Department of Transportation puts rail on equal footing with trucks and cars will certainly help produce optimal results.
The obvious unknown of technology and automated technologies will be the impact to the rail labor force, a phenomenon of course applicable to just about any U.S. industry and which engulfs a significant portion of public discourse surrounding technology. We believe that history provides good evidence for the fact that technology will lead to job shifts over time, with some jobs eliminated — like the blacksmith of old — while others are created — just like the PTC technician in railroads of today.
Robert D. Atkinson, leader of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, notes in a 2017 report, “even if automation eliminates some of the jobs in a particular industry, it does not reduce jobs in the overall economy. The reason is that no organization automates unless it saves money, and those savings get passed on to consumers, who in turn use those savings to buy something else. That spending creates jobs in other parts of the economy.”
We tend to agree, and appreciate that any future changes will be part of a collaborative collective bargaining process in our industry.
Looking forward through this quarter and the rest of the year, the AAR, in concert with its members, will continue to showcase the remarkable work the industry is doing in developing new technologies while also working with federal policymakers to understand and appreciate their existing and potential impact.