Why Crew Size Mandates For Trains Are a Really Bad Idea
Efforts to micromanage crew sizes on freight trains try to solve a problem that doesn’t exist -- and would create plenty of problems along the way.
In 2016, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) proposed a rule that would require freight trains to have at least two crew members on board at all times. Now, with regulatory efforts to impose the rule seemingly stalled under the Trump administration, some lawmakers are trying to push it through legislatively.
Although the assumption that two-person crews are safer than one-person crews is tempting, the evidence to support this assertion is nonexistent. Indeed, the FRA admitted in its rulemaking proposal that it “...cannot provide reliable or conclusive statistical data to suggest whether one-person crew operations are generally safer or less safe than multiple-person crew operations.”
The National Transportation Safety Board has similarly stated, “Based on our limited experience in this and other modes, we don’t find that two-person [train] crews offer a safety benefit.” Instead of relying on rigorous analysis, the FRA based its judgments on a few anecdotal incidents.
Single-person crews, whether they are ultimately realized in the U.S. by major freight carriers, are nothing new. Passenger rail agencies like Amtrak and commuter trains routinely operate with one person in the cab, as do some regional freight operators in the U.S. Single-person crews are the dominant practice for freight rail operations in many foreign countries, including France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.
Ironically, implementing a two-person crew requirement could actuallyundermine efforts to improve freight safety. Over the last decade, rail operators have directed massive investment toward positive train control (PTC) systems that use GPS and computers to track train movements and address human errors by automatically intervening to prevent accidents like railway worker injuries, collisions, and derailments due to excessive speed.
And although two-person crews are currently the norm on most freight railroads, technological advances are increasingly allowing for safer train operations with single-person crews. Imposing minimum crew size mandates would disregard the growing role innovation plays in railroad safety and ignore the fact that investments in track and equipment upgrades are far more effective in reducing accidents than mandating a specific crew size. To maintain their strong safety record and continue to serve their customers efficiently, rail operators need the flexibility to innovate with new technology, not rigid regulations.
The unintended consequences of mandating two-person crews could be significant. For one, costs would sharply increase, making it more difficult for them to compete with intermodal rivals. At a hearing in Oregon over asimilar bill earlier this year, a local rail operator testified that “the arbitrary imposition of addition[al] personnel would have a very detrimental impact on our ability to economically serve the rail shippers on this line. Due to the costs to add personnel for our small operation, we would have to impose increases in our freight rates to cover this cost which would likely cause shippers...to move their products by highway instead of rail.”
Indeed, higher prices for freight rail would divert traffic to trucks, which are less fuel efficient, contribute to congestion, and cause serious damage to our roads and highways. Most importantly, trucks are far more dangerous than trains. In 2017, a total of 4,102 people died in large truck crasheswhile trains killed 824 people. Incentivizing more use of a mode of transport that is five times more deadly is a curious way to promote safety.
Preventing railroads from capitalizing on technological innovations would hinder the industry's ability to control its costs, reduce resources available for additional safety measures, and raise costs on businesses that rely on freight railroads to ship their goods to market. And there’s no evidence that safety would improve.