Rules that mandate a two-person minimum staff for
freight locomotives have been a hot topic in state legislatures this year. Nine
states currently regulate crew sizes for certain trains, including California,
West Virginia and Wisconsin, while others like Colorado have recently passed analogous laws,
and still more, like Illinois, stand to do the same.

Meanwhile, the Federal Railroads
Administration (FRA) has been looking into updated crew size regulations since
2014, publishing a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) in 2016. The government
found no demonstrable safety benefits from a
mandatory second crew member aboard freight locomotives. Between 2008 and 2010
California’s Public Utilities Commission conducted a study on the issue by adding a
second crew member to a fraction of Los Angeles Metrolink trains and similarly
found no safety benefits.

Now, the FRA has decided a new staffing rule isn’t
appropriate and has withdrawn the associated NPRM. In doing so, it determined
that its previous statement, that two-person crews yield no demonstrable safety
benefits, “still holds true today.”

Beyond deciding new federal regulations aren’t
necessary for safety, the FRA made clear that its action constitutes “an
Affirmative Decision Not to Regulate with Intention to Preempt State Laws.” In
order to keep railroad regulations uniform across the country, the FRA intends
their decision to “preempt all state laws attempting to regulate train crew
staffing in any manner.”

This decision will have broad consequences for
state railroad regulation, as a total of 30 states have considered laws to
regulate locomotive staffing since 2015. FRA found that any regulation
requiring a minimum number of train crew members is unnecessary for safe
railroad operation, justifying the negative preemption of existing and proposed
state laws.

That’s all to say that by deciding states
can’t mandate protectionist transportation regulations, the FRA has exercised
its rightful authority to ensure interstate commerce flows smoothly. The agency
should be applauded for ensuring railroads can take the appropriate steps to
adapt in the fast-changing American freight marketplace. With a more flexible
labor force, railroads will be able to compete on a more level playing field
with trucks, barges and planes, and will continue to invest private money in
the nation’s freight infrastructure.

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