The Federal Railroad Administration Pursues Non Sequiturs Over Safety
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Since the federal government headed off a railroad strike last month, it would seem the US freight industry has been on track to improve safety measures for workers. However, the Federal Railroad Administration’s most recent proposition is both under-developed and overreaching. The FRA should look to new technologies to improve worker safety.

In December, the FRA proposed a safety rule that would mandate two-person crews on virtually all railroad operations. Though well-intentioned, this mandate lacks quality data to prove the efficacy of the two-person crew, and could expose more railway workers to danger while devastating railroad’s ability to compete. 

The mandate is an attempt to answer labor union concerns over potentially harmful developments within the railroad industry. In the last ten years, the average length of trains has increased to reduce the number of trains needed on the track. Simultaneously, certain passenger railways in major U.S. cities have reduced the standard two-member crew to a single crew member. These changes pose the threat of blocked crossings and fatigue hazards as crew members are responsible to manage inspections and operate mile-long trains alone. The FRA’s concession to organized labor fails to address the heart of the issue: human error. With the use of technology, railroads could solve the fatigue problem and improve safety during train inspections without compromising the railroads’ efficiency, thereby protecting workers’ jobs.

Certain innovative technologies already exist that could improve workplace safety on railroads and increase railroads ability to compete.  Positive Train Control systems (PTC) that limit train collisions and several other hazards have been implemented on 57,536 route miles of rail throughout the country, allowing for more crews to have even data to inform their decisions in the locomotive. Since rail began incorporating safety technologies like PTC, the total number of train accidents have decreased by 42 percent, while accidents originating from human error have declined by 41 percent. Human error remains the cause of 35 percent of all rail accidents. Meanwhile, Automated Track Inspection technologies outperform human inspections by almost 90 percent. Such data suggests that a mandate to increase personnel won’t safeguard worker safety, but by leaning on technologies, the railroad industry could continue the huge strides it has made in safety. 

Technologies also exist to address the fatigue hazard facing crew members on ever-growing trains. Drone-based railroad crossing inspections have been tested by FRA to assess damage to railroad crossings and the track condition at crossings to prevent derailments. The FRA has tested smaller drones in a pilot program that could fit in the cabin. Whereas the mandate would leave room for human error and fatigue, drones allow crew members to safely inspect trains and collect data without having to walk miles. 

In addition to perpetuating accidents caused by hazard fatigue, mandating a two-person crew would do little to prevent accidents caused by track deficiencies. Maintaining track integrity is critically important to preventing accidents as track deficiency leads to around 21 percent of accidents annually and accounts for 38 percent of damage costs. Fortunately, several innovative technologies could allow engineers to monitor track quality in real time. One such innovation, Norfolk Southern Railway’s autonomous track geometry measurement system, uses a combination of GPS technology, lasers, and accelerometers to collect information about the elevation, curvature, and potential defects in the track. By developing and using machine learning algorithms and AI software, railroads can more efficiently collect data on track quality to improve predictive maintenance of their tracks.

Other technologies like Full Moving Blocks (FMB) automatically space out trains from one another based on speed and train length using braking algorithms. A recent patent granted to several BNSF employees for a moving block system would improve the detection of broken rails and reform the block system to determine train spacing based on the braking capabilities. This patent is possible due to the real-time data collected through PTC systems to inform crew members of the distance between trains and adjust train’s positions according to their braking ability. 

Whereas there is limited data on the efficacy of increased crew sizes, there is plenty of data to suggest that more resources need to be spent on developing these technologies to augment existing crews. Only after crews and these technologies have been deployed on the railroad will there be data to show whether two-person or single-person crews are safe. Mandating more crew members to reduce harm ignores technology's  crucial role in reducing accident rates, putting more workers at risk. FRA is choosing to regulate first and then assess whether technology can be used to improve safety. It should be the other way around.

Roy Mathews is an Innovation Fellow at Young Voices. He is a graduate of Bates College and former Fulbright Fellow in Indonesia. He has been published in NRO, Law & Liberty, and The National Interest.

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