The state of the rail workforce is rapidly evolving with new developments in technology and computer-powered infrastructure in the American transportation industry. These developments are changing the way goods and people move about the nation, but not without controversy, as the rail industry’s existing workforce has been slow to adapt.

On June 20, the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials decided to explore this issue, and invited testimony from Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) Ronald Batory, followed by five representatives of railway labor groups and one representative of the Association of American Railroads. The hearing investigated a range of issues, from mile-long trains blocking roads to the premature rearming of Amtrak police with 9mm handguns. But from a policy perspective, the most interesting part of the conversation concerned the FRA’s recent decision to withdraw its 2016 proposal regarding minimum crew staffing requirements for freight locomotives.

The decision has proven controversial, with labor unions and some legislators railing against the FRA. Administrator Batory, in an attempt to keep the hearing on track, put the issue starkly: “There were no facts to support the rule so we withdrew it.” Still, hostile lines of questioning could not and would not be contained by the Committee chairman.

One problem that recurred, in questions from Rep. Eleanor Holmes-Norton, D-D.C., Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., and others, was the idea that the decision to withdraw the proposed rule resulted from some backroom abuse of the FRA’s discretionary authority. The questioners speculated about the potential safety outcomes of removing a second crew member from locomotives and cited the initial, factually incomplete 2016 proposal as evidence for support. In their estimation, the decision to withdraw the rule violated the “commonsense” idea that two crew members are safer than one. However, it does not violate or undermine the real-world, practical safety effects that result from automation technology.

The FRA is tasked with proposing rules, supported by factual evidence on the record, that yield safety benefits. And for crew staffing, as the FRA’s notice of withdrawal clearly states, there is no fact-based evidence to support the idea that having two crew members in a locomotive makes trains any safer.

It may sound like common sense that an extra crew member makes a train safer. But it has never been proven, and is countered by the fact that many small freight railroads, as well as more extensive passenger railroads, already operate with single-member crews. Administrator Batory noted repeatedly that since the last generation, crew sizes have fallen from five-to-seven staff to just two and safety has improved. Outside the United States, single-member crews have been used extensively. If trains today truly need two people in the locomotive to be safe, transportation researchers have had ample opportunities to show it. But they have not done so, as the FRA’s decision makes clear.

Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., correctly pointed out the various forms of automation that have been proven effective both domestically and abroad. Recently, we wrote about the Australian railroad Rio Tinto’s successful deployment of “AutoHaul”—named for its ability to complete autonomous heavy-haul shipments. We also noted BNSF Railway’s track inspection pilot program, identified by Rep. LaMalfa as the “coal loop” that uses automated technologies to assess and monitor over 1,300 miles of main and siding tracks between Lincoln, Nebraska, and Donkey Creek, Wyoming.

By ignoring the straightforward facts and playing gotcha with the FRA Administrator, the Committee members only succeeded at highlighting the actually commonsense arguments that the FRA relied upon when it determined there was no evidence for the safety benefits of crew-size regulation. The hearing made clear that the current system for regulating American railroads is working as Congress intended, with the FRA, railroads and their employees working together to ensure the safe operation of the nation’s privately-held freight infrastructure.

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