By Loren A. Smith Jr.
Editor’s note: The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FreightWaves or its affiliates.
As the Senate Committee on Commerce takes the next steps on rail safety legislation, there is reason for optimism. Railroads move an astounding amount of freight in the United States, roughly 30% of the total. However, it’s fair to say there’s room for improving the industry. Congress can help.
Recent news has made it clear that things don’t always move smoothly on the rails. The East Palestine, Ohio, disaster shows that local communities have legitimate concerns over potential spills of hazardous materials. The response from the company and public officials has received criticism, much of it deserved. At the same time, the spotlight is falling on other derailments that happen in various, mostly rural, areas.
As we look at possible policy changes, how should Congress act to enhance safety? There are three guideposts that may be useful: patience, recent legislative history and economics.
Congress is fielding justifiable demands for fast action from local communities — with some Ohio lawmakers particularly hearing from their constituents. However, we should also keep an eye on the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which conducts investigations of accidents in all modes of transportation.
The NTSB will likely take several more months to complete its investigation, but House and Senate committees can get to work preparing their own draft legislation. Any final bill will take time to be negotiated between the two chambers, and that process should allow for more input from the NTSB. The process should consider what went wrong in East Palestine specifically and what measures can address similar circumstances in the future.
Recent legislative history
With any new infrastructure-related legislation, Congress should take careful note of what did and what didn’t make it into the bipartisan infrastructure law of 2021, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). One obvious area where Congress has already demonstrated consensus is on grade crossings: areas where road and rail traffic cross.
Across the country, there are approximately 212,000 of these intersections. Not surprisingly, they are among the most dangerous hot spots for safety, with the most fatalities involving railroads. Congress wisely included starter funding in the IIJA to fix these crossings, and this might be an area for quick compromise — to build overpasses for as many of these intersections as possible, to improve not only safety, but also efficiency. Who wants to wait for a long train to pass?
There has been a great deal of focus in recent months, justifiably, on the derailments that occur along the tens of thousands of miles of rail track around the country. However, a few points for balance: The vast majority of these derailments happen in rail yards, pose no health or safety risk, and are quickly addressed. Also, freight rail is by far the safest way for vast quantities of freight — including even hazardous materials — to get where it needs to go. Freight rail is also cheaper and, in many cases, better for the environment, than other forms of surface transportation.
This perspective is critical, because Congress is surely aware that any updates to the law that make rail transport more costly could have the unintended effect of pushing freight onto other, less safe, forms of transportation. That would be a terrible irony.
The good news is that Congress has an opportunity to take strides in the most promising areas of development for safety: additional sensor and automation technologies. Policymakers successfully nudged freight rail carriers to install positive train control technology during the three previous presidential administrations, which dovetails with efforts under President Joe Biden to work with Congress on the implementation of the IIJA.
Some policymakers and regulators are pushing for rules to require minimum crew size for trains. However, as new technologies develop, new jobs and new needs will develop as well. Policymakers should not rush into mandating crew sizes on trains, when the technologies to keep trains safe may make automation the safer option for communities.
Congress should empower rail workers with the best and most affordable new technologies to improve safety monitoring. The clear safety benefits of allowing proven automation to handle dangerous jobs will protect workers. It will also allow them to focus on what they do best, as they oversee a safer and better railroad system for the 21st century.
Loren A. Smith Jr. is the president of Skyline Policy Risk Group, a research and consulting firm focused on the supply chain. He previously served as deputy assistant secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation.
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