As the nation winds its way through a pandemic in an election year, it’s easy to forget that policy discussions of months and years past continue to chug along. Yes, you do indeed see what I did there. As we were all busy navigating 2020’s myriad policy fires, legislators and regulators have been working to decide what comes next for America’s railroads.

In August, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) submitted its Final Rule on Rail Integrity Amendments & Track Safety Standards. This completes a process begun in 2019 to allow continuous ultrasonic inspection of railroad tracks via devices installed in vehicles, rather than requiring on-foot inspections that cause excessive track downtime. This will dramatically speed up the rate of track inspections and allow such inspections to be carried out far more frequently than under the past regulatory regime. Moreover, by moving from a prescriptive role that mandates particular inspection methods to an outcome-based method, FRA’s new rule will make it easier for railroads to implement further safety-enhancing practices in the future.

Getting here wasn’t quick or easy, and citizens should sleep well knowing regulators made absolutely certain that these methods have proven at least as good as the previous eyes-on-rails regime. Continuous inspection was piloted by the BNSF railroad on its “coal loop” under the watchful eye of FRA regulators in Wyoming and Nebraska in 2018 and 2019, providing valuable real-world data and experience that would later inform the now-complete rulemaking. R Street discussed the matter in 2019 and gave an update in 2020, and the prospect of continuous track inspection came up in a 2019 congressional hearing. Now, American shippers will enjoy a transportation network that will be more resilient, with less downtime and fewer delays.

But at the same time, legislators have been moving in the other direction on other technological developments that stand to put fewer railroad workers in harm’s way. Earlier this summer, the House passed the Invest in America Act (HR 2) which, if passed by the Senate and signed by the president, would implement prescriptive rules on freight railway labor practices. As passed, the bill would ban operation of any freight train without “at least 1 appropriately qualified and certified conductor and 1 appropriately qualified and certified engineer”.

This would replace the current railway labor paradigm where train staffing is determined through negotiation between railway unions and freight rail firms, who work together to decide what staffing level is appropriate for a given operation. This would further drive a wedge between safety-justified rules applied to privately owned freight railroads and publicly operated passenger railroads, despite the fact that both face similar safety concerns that put a premium on crash avoidance (See discussions of FRA’s Positive Train Control and locomotive crash resilience regulations that apply equally to passenger and freight trains).

If anything, the 2020 “year of the pandemic” has only made the case for mandatory two-person-in-the-locomotive crews weaker. The idea of social distancing inside a train cab is laughable. Goods shortages caused by transportation disruption have only made clear that a pandemic-resilient transportation system is one that limits how much labor is needed to physically move products to consumers. While railway conductor jobs have long been well-compensated and valued by workers, when goods sit idle because trains can’t move due to staffing shortages, consumers lose.

So 2020 has been a year of one step forward and maybe one step back. But for now, this year has been a net positive for transportation innovation and the resilience of the American infrastructure network. Let’s hope Congress doesn’t bow to pressure to erase those gains in the future.

Image credit:  Denis Belitsky