In a new column in the Journal of Commerce, R Street’s Brian Jencunas recently made the case for why U.S. regulators should let the freight railroad industry innovate more, to the benefit of increased safety and a high-functioning economy:

“Innovative technologies are enabling improvements in efficiency, price, and consumer satisfaction in every mode of transportation, but especially in the nation’s rail industry. However, against that backdrop, an outdated federal regulatory atmosphere is preventing our railways from keeping pace. It’s time for federal rail regulation to embrace the opportunity to reduce freeway congestion, improve safety, and support American economic growth for decades to come.”

Yet policies threaten more widespread innovation:

“For instance, the USDOT is considering mandating minimum crew sizes on trains – just as technological change is creating an entirely new staffing paradigm. The department has also shown little enthusiasm for automated track inspection tools that could continue to improve safety outcomes. Perhaps most perplexing, waivers to test new technologies, even in controlled environments, are hard to obtain and often come with needless – seemingly arbitrary – limitations. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) must do better.”

Solutions can be straightforward:

“USDOT could simply express a more expansive definition of “person” via interpretive guidance (as has been issued by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the context of highly-automated systems in the passenger vehicle context) or via formal rulemaking. Either approach would eliminate the need for a wholesale rewrite of the relevant regulations.”

Indeed, highly-automated trains hold the same promise as highly-automated road-going vehicles, but their promise is more readily realized because the environments in which trains operate are less complex than roadways. Ensuring their deployment and a sound regulatory environment will only benefit the U.S. and the economy.


[Read the full op-ed over at the Journal of Commerce]

Image credit: kojihirano

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