Policymakers often overlook a critical component of the nation’s infrastructure: railroads. Indeed, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics estimates 25.5 billion tons of freight will be moved by 2045, a 37 percent increase compared to 2018.
But states are now trying to legislate a labor mandate best left to negotiations between workers and the rail industry. By our count, 23 states introduced bills during the 2019 legislative session requiring two crew members to be on freight trains at all times, with proposals now moving in the 2020 legislative session. The effect of the bills is a double whammy — getting legislators in the business of micromanaging labor allocation and freezing innovation in its tracks.
The bills stem from labor’s fear of automation. The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 mandated the nationwide adoption of Positive Train Control (PTC), a technologically advanced system of hardware and sensors designed to automatically stop a train before accidents related to human error occur. PTC’s implementation came at a hefty price to the railroads, estimated to cost more than $10 billion by completion. While expensive, it’s a small price to pay considering there were 881 rail-related casualties in 2019.