Improve Rail Safety With Technology, Not Crew Mandates

Joe Kennedy February 4, 2020
February 4, 2020

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The decision of when to trust a machine over a human can be fraught, especially when the technology is relatively new to the public. The choice is often influenced not just by concerns about how it will perform but also by the fear that, if the technology is too good, it will replace workers. An example of this tension has been playing out recently in the Maryland and Virginia legislatures.

Virginia House Bill 440, which passed the House of Delegates in January and is expected to be up for consideration soon in the Senate, would prohibit freight trains from operating in Virginia unless they have at least two crew members. Maryland’s legislature recently passed a similar bill, although Governor Larry Hogan vetoed it. Two-person crews may seem reasonable, but the truth is it no longer takes two people to operate a train in many circumstances—and mandating it would have broad ramifications for the industry, consumers, roads, and the environment.

Both here and in Europe, particularly on routes running through rural areas and on tracks equipped with the latest safety features, many trains already run safely with one crew member. That’s because the balance between labor and technology constantly shifts—and as safety technologies improve, trains can run with smaller crews. The industry’s strong record since being deregulated serves as evidence of this trend: Between 2009 and 2018, the rate of train accidents fell by 10 percent from already reduced levels.

A key reason for the trend is that the industry has been investing heavily in safety systems such as positive train control (PTC), which monitors speed restrictions, communications, and track signals to prevent collisions. The technology will be fully implemented across the national rail network by the end of this year, and the industry says single-person crews would only be used where PTC is enabled.

Mandating crew sizes would have the detrimental effect of increasing the net cost of continued investments in automation and safety. After all, it would make little sense for the industry to keep implementing improved safety equipment that reduces the number of people it takes to run a train safely if it will then be prohibited from achieving those savings. Moreover, burdening railroads with an unnecessary crew mandate will make the industry less competitive in a period in which trains have had to become extremely efficient in order to compete and coordinate with trucking and even air transport—industries that are undergoing their own technological changes aimed at improving performance and reducing cost.

The ultimate effect of mandating crew sizes will be higher prices for consumers and, because trucks are less efficient at carrying freight, higher emissions and more road congestion. This is especially unwise when there is no strong evidence that a second crew member substantially improves safety. We should also remember that, although technology is not perfect, it is often better than humans. According to safety data from 2017, 38 percent of train accidents were caused by human error rather than mechanical failures. The central purpose of positive train control is to dramatically reduce these errors.

Crew size has traditionally been determined by collective bargaining, with the twin goals of minimizing job losses and ensuring workers are properly trained. Unions are unlikely to approve any staff reductions if they think it will threaten safety. But in fact, technology often improves safety and frees humans to do other work, which improves the economics for train operators and the quality of service for consumers.

But in general, crew sizes are more properly left to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), which regulates train safety nationally. Interestingly, the FRA last year withdrew a notice of proposed rulemaking that would have mandated two-person crews. The agency admitted that it did “not have information that suggests that there have been any previous accidents involving one-person crew operations that could have been avoided by adding a second crewmember.” So, it ruled that a blanket crew-size requirement is not needed.

Given the railroad industry’s national scope and the inefficiency introduced by different state mandates, the FRA’s action should preempt state mandates such as the one Virginia legislators are considering. The FRA has explicitly stated its intent to challenge states that pass crew mandates, and its position is likely to be upheld in court.