ACI Files Comments on FRA’s Proposed Crew Size Mandate

U.S. Federal Railroad Administration

Comments on Proposed Two Crew Size Safety Requirements

49 CFR Part 218,

Docket Number: 2022-15540

RIN 2130-AC88

Summary

The American Consumer Institute is a 501(c)(3) non-partisan, educational, and public policy research organization with the mission to identify, analyze, and protect the interests of consumers in selected legislative and rulemaking proceedings. As an organization focusing on consumer welfare, we are deeply concerned about the Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA’s) proposal to mandate two-person crews on freight rail in the United States.

While we support the FRA’s attempts to improve safety on the nation’s railroads, the data on record provides no evidence that adding additional crew members would provide any safety benefits, particularly with the widespread use of positive train control systems (PTC). As the world moves to more automation – including driverless vehicles and trucks – the proposal to mandate two-person crews is a step in the wrong direction. This regulatory requirement disregards the technological advancements that operators currently employ to enhance safety.

In addition, we are concerned that requiring two-person crews will further exacerbate labor shortages in the short run, raise freight transportation and commodity costs – costs that will ultimately be passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices. In the long term, the added costs borne by railroads will impact intermodal competition and incentivize the use of less environmentally friendly methods of transporting goods across the country, particularly trucking. In other words, shippers will substitute to trucking, thereby putting strain on roads and bridges, as well as adding significantly more to greenhouse gas emissions.

Freight rail is a critical component of the U.S. economy, moving goods across the country quickly and at a low cost. Every year, freight railroads move more than 1.7 billion tons of goods, generating an annual economic impact of around $80 billion. Additionally, freight rail directly supports more than 167,000 jobs that pay well above the national average.[1] Given the critical nature of freight rail to the U.S. economy, any regulatory activity that alters how the freight rail industry operates must be taken with the utmost care and consideration for the consequences.

In short, we respectfully urge the FRA to acknowledge these shortcomings, and withdraw the rule from consideration at this time.

Labor Shortages

Currently, the United States faces a shortage of qualified rail workers. In September 2016, the Surface Transportation Board (STB) reported that 59,831 Americans were employed as either engineers or conductors.[2] By January 2022, however, that number had fallen to just 45,767.[3] Data from the STB, presented in the graph below, outlines that this has been a decades-long trend, exacerbated by the Coronavirus pandemic. Such a significant decline in the number of workers has put considerable strain on the domestic supply chain, increasing American consumers’ prices, reducing physical goods’ availability, and creating massive backlogs at the nation’s ports.[4]

Figure 1: Surface Transportation Board

Chart, histogram  Description automatically generated

The lack of available staff to crew trains resulted in warnings from private companies that “railcars were waiting at yards for more than a week and travel times for some routes more than doubled.”[5] Requiring two crew members operate each train will only further exacerbate the current labor shortage as freight operators will be forced to use more workers to staff fewer trains, leading to fewer trains transporting goods across the country.

Technology and a Failure to Show the Danger of Single Crew Operations

Over the past few years, technology has made freight rail one of the safest sectors in the United States, with train accidents down 33 percent between 2000 and 2021.[6] Freight rail has fewer injuries “than most other sectors, including trucking, airlines, manufacturing, and construction.”[7] Such an impressive safety record has only been possible because operators have implemented PTC technology that can “automatically stop a train before certain accidents occur,” such as train collisions and derailments.[8] According to the Association of American Railroads, operators have invested over $780 billion in PTC since the 1980s, and the system is fully operational nationwide on Class I freight rail lines.[9] Research from the National Transportation Safety Board suggests that in 2021, 154 incidents could have been avoided had PTC been used.[10] This points to the fact that PTC has effectively made the second crew member redundant for modern rail operations.

It should also be noted that in the FRA’s NPRM, the agency has failed to provide clear empirical evidence that two crew members operating a freight train are safer than a single crew member using a train with PTC. In fact, when withdrawing a 2016 proposal to mandate two crew members, the FRA acknowledged that “there is insufficient data to demonstrate that accidents are avoided by having a second qualified person” onboard.[11] The FRA has also previously acknowledged that accidents have occurred “in which both qualified individuals in a two-person crew made mistakes and failed to avoid an accident.”[12] When withdrawing the 2016 NPRM, the FRA also noted that analysis of accident data over seventeen years “could not determine that any of the accidents/incidence involving a one person crew would have been prevented by having multiple crewmembers.”[13]

Additionally, freight rail operators have begun to introduce Automated Track Inspection (ATI) to replace the visual inspection of tracks, thereby reducing the likelihood of accidents. Unlike visual inspections, “ATI systems use lasers and cameras mounted onto locomotives or rail cars and inspect track as the train travels across the network. The system tests each foot of track under the same force as exerted by a loaded train.” When BNSF sought permission to make greater use of its ATI system back in 2018, it found that “visual inspections tend to identify the more obvious defects, and only once the underlying changes in track structure have manifested as more potentially significant problems,” the automated system was able to “detect changes or deterioration over time in the track before defects become visible and dangerous.”[14] Automated inspections also allowed the company to identify more defects, considerably increasing safety.[15]

While the FRA seeks to put more humans in trains, other modes of transport seek to remove them. Over the past few years, Daimler and Aurora have announced the development of autonomous trucks, which will see goods transported across the country without the need for human operators. Such a technological advancement would see the cost of transporting goods via road slashed and the speed at which goods reach consumers cut. Rather than trying to put more human operators in trains, the FRA should be following the lead of the trucking industry and to allow as much automation as possible.

When withdrawing the 2016 NPRM, the FRA noted that technology, like PTC and ATI had the ability to “improve safety significantly by reducing accidents caused by human error.”[16] In short, the FRA has conceded that greater use of technology with fewer crew member has made railroads safer.

Financial and Environmental Costs

Freight rail is one of the most cost-effective ways to ship goods across the United States. Recent estimates suggest shipping goods via freight rail cost, on average, $70.27 per net ton, while the cost to ship via road is approximately $214.96 per net ton.[17] For American businesses, freight rail offers the ability to transport goods across the country at affordable costs, which results in considerable savings for American consumers. Requiring that freight rail operators have two crew members as opposed to one would raise the cost of shipping goods.

As noted earlier, these increased costs would be passed on to the consumer in the form of higher prices. Given freight rail transports around 28% of all goods in the United States each year,[18] American consumers would be confronted by these price increases. At a time when Americans already face record inflation and supply chain problems, the FRA should not be considering any new rules that would increase costs for businesses and consumers.

              In addition, increasing costs for freight rail also has environmental costs. Studies have routinely shown freight rail is “3-4 times more fuel efficient than trucks” and “moving freight by train instead of truck” would “reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 75%.”[19] By making freight rail more expensive, the FRA will be making less environmentally friendly alternatives more attractive for cross-country shipping, making it harder for the federal government to meet its ambitious goals of reducing carbon emissions. Incentivizing the use of trucks will also add to congestion on the nation’s roads.

Conclusion

To summarize, we find no benefit to consumers, shippers, or rail operators for this action, but we see significant costs that could result. Therefore, we respectfully urge the FRA to acknowledge these shortcomings, and withdraw the rule from consideration at this time. 

Respectfully,

Steve Pociask

President/CEO

American Consumer Institute

Center for Citizen Research


[1] American Association of Railroads, “The Economic Impact of America’s Freight Railroads,” https://www.aar.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/AAR-Economic-Impact-Fact-Sheet.pdf; and U.S. Department of Transportation, “The Freight Rail Network,” https://railroads.dot.gov/rail-network-development/freight-rail-overview#:~:text=The%20rail%20network%20accounted%20for,length%20and%20weight%20freight%20travels).

[2] Surface Transportation Board,Employment Data,” https://www.stb.gov/reports-data/economic-data/employment-data/.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Carter Evans, “The Warehouses are Full: Cargo Begins Clogging Port of Los Angeles Amid Railroad Worker Shortage,” CBS News, August 1, 2022, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/port-of-los-angeles-clogged-railroad-worker-shortage/

[5] Paul Ziobro, “Shortage of Railroad Workers Threatens Recovery,” Wall Street Journal, July 22, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/shortage-of-railroad-workers-threatens-recovery-11626953584.

[6] Association of American Railroads, “Rail’s Safety Record,” https://www.aar.org/issue/freight-rail-safety-record/.

[7] Association of American Railroads, “Freight Railroads Move America Safely,” https://www.aar.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/AAR-Safety-Fact-Sheet.pdf.

[8] Union Pacific, “Positive Train Control,” https://www.up.com/media/media_kit/ptc/about-ptc/.

[9] Association of American Railroads, “Freight Railroads & Positive Train Control,” https://www.aar.org/campaigns/ptc/.

[10] National Transportation Safety Board, “NTSB Closes 3 Key Positive Train Control Safety Recommendations,” January 14, 2021, https://www.ntsb.gov/news/press-releases/Pages/NR20210114.aspx.

[11] Federal Register, “Train Crew Staffing,” March 15, 2016, https://www.regulations.gov/document/FRA-2014-0033-1606.

[12] Ibid.

[13] U.S. Department of Transportation, “Withdrawal of Notice of Proposed Rulemaking: Train Crew Staffing,” https://railroads.dot.gov/elibrary/withdrawal-notice-proposed-rulemaking-train-crew-staffing.

[14] Federal Register, “Comments of BNSF, Docket No. FRA-2018-0091,” https://www.regulations.gov/document/FRA-2020-0064-0003.

[15] Ibid.

[16] U.S. Department of Transportation, “Withdrawal of Notice of Proposed Rulemaking: Train Crew Staffing,” https://railroads.dot.gov/elibrary/withdrawal-notice-proposed-rulemaking-train-crew-staffing.

[17] RSI Logistics, “Comparing the Costs of Rail Shipping vs Truck,” April 20, 2021, https://www.rsilogistics.com/blog/comparing-the-costs-of-rail-shipping-vs-truck/.

[18] U.S. Department of Transportation, “The Freight Rail Network,” https://railroads.dot.gov/rail-network-development/freight-rail-overview#:~:text=The%20rail%20network%20accounted%20for,length%20and%20weight%20freight%20travels).

[19] Association of American Railroads, “Freight Rail & Preserving the Environment,” https://www.aar.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/AAR-Sustainability-Fact-Sheet.pdf.

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