While the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) recently rescinded a regulation to mandate two-person crews, the threat is alive and well in the U.S. House of Representatives and select state legislatures.
The action by the FRA sends a clear message to these lawmakers that crew size mandates are not only unnecessary but in contradiction to the ruling of federal safety regulator of record. As AAR President and CEO Ian Jefferies recently wrote in regard to federal and state efforts to legislate crew size:
“Serious arbiters who care about the future of transportation, particularly the movement of freight, should oppose these proposals and recognize them for what they are: mandates wholly incongruent with the innovation occurring across rail and other transportation modes. Such policy would not improve safety. Instead, it would limit the competitive viability of a privately funded transportation mode and undermine bipartisan infrastructure goals.”
“…rail staffing has been and should remain a matter for collective bargaining. Labor and management have bargained over crew size for almost 100 years. Since 1980, when the industry was economically deregulated, and as technology has improved, crew sizes at the major freight railroads have been gradually reduced through collective bargaining from five to three to two. Safety statistics have improved at a staggering pace throughout this period, especially the rate of accidents caused by human factors.
Railroads are committed to good faith bargaining on all labor issues, including this one, and seek collaboration with their labor partners to chart the best path forward. Policymakers and the public must understand that running a safe and efficient railroad is in the best interest of railroad companies, rail employees, customers and the nation. Rather than be against something, lawmakers and industry together should be for something — namely, increasingly the safe and efficient movement of more goods and people.”
The rail industry is hardly alone in opposing crew size legislation.
For instance, a 2017 report from the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation noted:
“A primary motive for going to one-person lines is to reduce operating costs. But the automation needed to accomplish this could have the secondary effect of producing technologies that also improve safety. Looked at another way, companies have a continuous incentive to improve safety, but it may not be profitable to develop automation that increases safety unless companies are allowed to reduce other operating costs, including labor, as they become unnecessary.”
More recently, Progressive Policy Institute Senior Economic Policy Analyst Elliott Long argued:
“Regulation undoubtedly plays a crucial role in setting standards for consumer health and safety and ensuring fair markets. But regulations must provide industries with the certainty to invest finite resources and make sound business decisions — not set bad precedent for future compliance. PTC came at a substantial price to railroad companies, estimated at more than $10 billion.
These crew size mandates would exclude freight rail from the increased productivity of the digital age, even with the widespread anticipation of self-driving cars and semis. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, labor productivity for rail transportation has increased only 16 percent over the past decade, about the same as the sluggish rate across the broader U.S. economy. Encouraging freight rail to implement PTC would revive productivity growth and reduce the cost to bring products to market for the industries freight serves — energy, agriculture, and manufacturing to name a few.”
Instead of pursuing narrow dictates like crew size mandates, legislators should take a long look at the policy and consider more sensible, performance-based measures, rather than a command and control approach.