Railroad Legislation Misses The Mark

Congress is currently considering legislation that it hopes would increase the safety of U.S. freight railroads and reduce the possibility of future incidents like what occurred earlier this year in East Palestine, Ohio, when a derailment forced the evacuation of hundreds of the town’s residents when five tanker cars carrying vinyl chloride derailed and spilled their contents, contaminating the ground and forcing the evacuation of hundreds of residents.

I habitually pay attention to such incidents because of my own experience. For nearly a decade I lived in a house in Oshkosh, Wisconsin with a backyard that abutted the train tracks of the Wisconsin Central railroad, and trains went by my house on an hourly basis. My time living near the railroad was mostly uneventful, although a derailed train that spilled propane and started a fire resulted in my neighborhood being evacuated for a day. While no one was injured in the derailment, I can report that my neighbors and I found evacuation unnerving.

While attempting to reduce derailments may be a worthy goal, the current legislation would do little to improve rail safety while driving up the costs of shipping goods via rail. While few people might shed a tear for the railroads—or their customers—if costs go up, the inevitable result of such an outcome would be that more goods would end up being transported via trucks, which pose a much greater danger to U.S. residents than railroads.

The current legislation has numerous problems: For instance, one section would mandate that railroads implement wheel bearing detectors, which railroads installed voluntarily and can detect possible wheel failure, closer together along their tracks than is the current practice. Doing so should help railroads detect possible problems more quickly, as they already do absent regulation.

While this prescription might seem unobjectionable, it ignores the fact that these detectors represent a safety device that will become outdated and is being rapidly supplanted by onboard sensors that can monitor bearings continuously. Forcing companies to spend billions of dollars on what may soon be an outdated technology would almost surely result in them delaying further adoption of the new and improved safety measures.

Another measure in the legislation would mandate railroads employ two man crews in all trains operated by Class I’s—a puzzling inclusion given that the train that derailed in East Palestine had a three man crew. There are not currently any Class I railroads that have a one man crew.

The intent of the provision by its primary advocates is to deter railroads from implementing technology in the future that could allow railroads to operate autonomous trains. While this may be a topic worthy of debate, pretending that this represents a safety response to the Ohio accident is nonsensical.

The Federal Rail Administration does not even have crew fatigue listed as a possible reason for a train accident in its official forms, mainly because the current rules strictly governing how many hours an engineer can work in a day have proven to be quite effective at preventing such fatigue.

New laws that increase shipping costs—and that are not offset by any savings from safety improvements—would reduce the amount of goods traveling by rail and push more goods travel on trucks. This would be an unmitigated disaster, given that trucks pose a much greater danger to U.S. residents than freight trains.

That is certainly true for me: While my 24 hour evacuation was unpleasant, it was a walk in the park compared to the three times my car was forced into a ditch by an errant truck on Route 41, the four lane highway that runs through Oshkosh.

Railroads already have an incentive to reduce derailments, as they can cost them millions of dollars—Norfolk Southern will end up spending more than $400 million to clean up the incident in East Palestine. The Federal Railroad Administration already administers a wide array of rules intended to reduce the incidence of derailments, and the data suggests they have been successful—derailments are down nearly 50 percent in the last two decades.

And while it’s Congress’ job to listen to its constituents who are understandably upset about what happened in Ohio, it should also ensure that it responds to their outrage by pursuing safety measures that are cost-effective, something it hasn’t always done with regard to railroads. For instance, collisions between trains and cars or trucks on crossings poses a much greater danger to U.S. residents, and reducing these or eliminating them altogether would save many more lives than anything this bill does.

Sometimes constituents don’t correctly perceive the risks and costs involved in a regulatory change, and it’s why Congress should avoid legislating via anecdotes. The current legislation would codify several unnecessary steps that would not only fail to do much to reduce derailments (which is not the main safety problem with railroads) but it would make our nation’s roads more dangerous by putting more goods in trucks.

As someone who once served as the economist for one of the committees of jurisdiction, I can attest that it lacks the expertise to come up with appropriate technical remedies for reducing derailments. Rather than pursue a grab bag of new policies, a targeted bill actually connected to East Palestine would be more appropriate.

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