The FRA Is Resisting Automated Trains and Automated Track-Inspection Technologies

Robert D. Atkinson October 27, 2021
October 27, 2021

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Freight trains could be the next best thing in transportation given the truck driver shortages and efforts to cut carbon emissions. Moreover, new technologies like autonomous systems and artificial intelligence can help the industry continue its productivity growth. This was also illustrated in a recent Wall Street Journal article that painted a forward-looking and optimistic picture of the issue. 

Indeed, given the improvements in the last decade in a range of enabling technologies, such as sensors, communication networks, actuators, and software (including AI), the opportunities for increased autonomy for trains are significant. 

However, one issue that the WSJ did not mention is the current regulatory restrictions that the Biden administration’s Federal Railroad Administration is proposing. 

In the Obama administration, regulators sought to implement a rule requiring freight rail crews to include two people—something the railway unions support. The Trump administration wisely rescinded this rule, but the Biden administration wants to bring it back. 

It’s not just automated trains that the FRA is resisting; it’s also automated track-inspection technologies. FRA wants to end pilot programs and waivers that have allowed freight rail companies to use AA-based automated inspection systems. 

Continued technological innovation in the freight rail industry is critical to boosting U.S. living standards by helping to lower freight costs. But regulators need to avoid setting up roadblocks. Policymakers should foster regulation that incentivizes innovation, facilitates the deployment of automated systems, and accommodates dynamic technological change.