No, Biden’s New Rail Crew Mandate Doesn’t Make ‘Common Sense’

“The 53-car freight train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, last year was operated by a crew of three men, none of whom were able to prevent the cascade of mechanical and communication failures that led to the unfortunate accident.
In response to that crash, the federal Department of Transportation announced on Tuesday a new policy requiring freight trains to operate with at least two-person crews—a mandate that the Biden administration says will enhance rail safety.

If you’ve passed first grade, you might now find yourself asking a rather basic question: Isn’t three more than two?

Rest assured that it is. However, in Washington, the policy-making calculus often relies on fuzzy math that is heavily influenced by the pull of special interests and the strong sense of do-something-ism.

Both are on display in the new freight railroad mandate. The derailment in East Palestine was bad, and something must be done. This is something, so now it is being done—and bonus points can be scored because doing this specific thing will please the Biden administration’s labor union allies, which have been lobbying the government for years to impose exactly this two-person crew mandate.

On Tuesday, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said it should be “common sense” that “large freight trains, some of which can be over three miles long, should have at least two crew members on board.”

The length of the train has absolutely nothing to do with it, but Buttigieg is gesturing toward the idea that a second person on board could bring the train to a halt if the driver is somehow incapacitated. And, indeed, it was longstanding railroading practice to have multiple people in the cab of freight trains for exactly this reason.

These days, however, it is automation and not a backup engineer that is responsible for a dramatic decline in railway accidents and injuries. Thanks to positive train control (PTC)—essentially a computer-based override system that monitors speed and track signals to avert collisions, and which railroads have been mandated by Congress to use since 2008—rail accidents have fallen by 30 percent while employee injuries are down 40 percent since 2000, according to data from the Association of American Railroads (AAR), an industry group.

Additionally, Buttigieg’s claim about “common sense” comports with neither the specifics of the East Palestine accident nor recent governmental reviews of the two-person crew mandate.

The Federal Railroad Administration spent three years investigating a proposed two-person crew mandate before concluding in 2019 that the rule was not “necessary or appropriate for railroad operations to be conducted safely,” largely because of the safety gains already made by automation. More recently, Congress considered—but, notably, did not enact—a two-member crew mandate in the wake of the East Palestine derailment.

As for the the East Palestine incident, having a crew of 10 people driving the train likely wouldn’t have made any difference. The crash was caused by an overheated wheel bearing, which failed and derailed the train as the crew was attempting to bring it to a stop. The three-person crew should have been alerted to the problem sooner, but at least one track-side detector meant to spot the wheel issue was not working properly.”

The Rail Safety Act Is About Union Handouts, Not Safety

“After many years of working in the policy world, I have concluded that politics is at most 10 percent about making the world better and safer. The rest is at least 45 percent theater and 45 percent catering to special interest groups. Further evidence for my assessment comes from the recent grandstanding in the U.S. Senate on rail safety.
One reason why so much of what comes out of Congress is useless, if not straight up destructive, boils down to incentives. Politicians need something they can brag about when they seek reelection or election to higher office. Meanwhile, legislators are constantly surrounded by special interests who plead for government-granted privilege such as subsidies, loan guarantees, tariffs, or regulations cleverly designed to hamstring competitors. Politicians rarely hear from the victims of their policies. Few voters can trace the origin of the higher prices they pay and the lower living standards they suffer.”

Problems With Mass Transit Won’t Be Solved With More Money

“Transit agencies face a conundrum. Because they view transit ridership largely in equity terms, they design the systems largely as social-welfare programs designed to provide poorer residents with a means to get around. Yet when they dump billions of dollars in boutique rail lines, they inevitably cannibalize funds from the bus routes that serve the bulk of their riders—and few drivers end up taking those rail lines, anyway.”

“Instead of thinking like business-people who need to meet the needs of customers, California transit officials act like government bureaucrats who are married to high-cost government and union solutions, and mainly want to impose their preferences on us—rather than lure us into transit by offering high-quality transportation alternatives. Until they change their thinking, Californians will continue to vote with their gas pedals.”

Why train derailments involving hazardous chemicals keep happening

“Human error and track defects are two of the biggest causes of derailments, for example. In cases involving hazardous chemicals, equipment failures have also played a role in the past. These issues, broadly, may be compounded by staffing cuts railroads have made in recent years and their resistance to more costly equipment upgrades.”

‘Enough with the politics’: Derailment investigator takes aim at partisan sniping, misinfo

“NTSB’s preliminary report released Thursday showed that the engineer at the controls of the Norfolk Southern train that derailed in Ohio tried to stop the train following a warning about an overheating wheel, but by that time several cars had already come off the tracks.
According to the report, before it derailed, the train passed three detectors intended to alert train crew to physical problems, including overheating wheels. Though the train detectors showed one of the wheels was steadily getting hotter, it did not reach a temperature Norfolk Southern considered critical until it passed the third detector and alerted, as outlined by the National Transportation Safety Board.

When the train passed that last detector, the detector “transmitted a critical audible alarm message instructing the crew to slow and stop the train to inspect a hot axle,” the report said.

By then, the engineer was already trying to slow the train because it was behind another train. Upon hearing the alarm, the engineer increased the application of the brakes, and then automatic emergency brakes initiated, bringing the train to a stop.

When it stopped, the crew “observed fire and smoke and notified the Cleveland East dispatcher of a possible derailment,” the report said.

Thirty-eight cars derailed and 12 more were damaged in the ensuing fire.

The hopper car with the overheating bearing was carrying plastic pellets, which caught fire when the axle overheated, Homendy said.

The placards that designate which cars are carrying hazardous materials — and which she said are “critical in response and in protecting the community,” were also made of plastic and melted. NTSB may recommend a different material for the placards.

The focus of the investigation is on the wheelset and the bearings. They are also looking at the design of the tank cars themselves, the accident response, including the venting and burning of the vinyl chloride, railcar design and maintenance procedures and practices, Norfolk Southern’s use of wayside defect detectors, and Norfolk Southern’s railcar inspection practices.

NTSB plans to hold a rare investigative field hearing near the site in the spring with the goals of informing the public, collecting factual information from witnesses, discussing possible solutions and building consensus for change.”

The East Palestine, Ohio, train wreck didn’t have to be this bad

“Rail workers, government officials, and industry analysts have long warned that such disasters are an expected consequence of an industry that has aggressively cut costs, slashed its workforce, and resisted regulation for years.”

“The $80 billion US freight rail industry, spanning 140,000 route miles, is the largest in the world and, according to the US Department of Transportation, the most cost-efficient, with one of the lowest accident rates.
The expansive freight rail network runs through just about every part of the country, connecting coastal metropolises to small towns in the middle, hauling 28 percent of freight in the US.

One of the challenges in a train disaster is that so many different actors are involved with varying degrees of responsibilities. Trains and rails are owned by private companies, which are in charge of their own maintenance and inspections. That also means that a lot of information about their operations is not public. Since rail is considered to be a vital national industry, the federal government plays major roles in regulating it.

But the government’s oversight is split confusingly among several agencies”

“There are ways to detect these problems in advance. Railroads have infrared sensors that can identify components that are starting to heat up, but these sensors can be upward of 20 miles apart while an overheated bearing can seize in two or three miles. A train conductor may not receive any warning.

According to Ditmeyer, one way to find these problems in advance is with acoustic detectors. Failing wheel bearings often start making a clicking noise, sometimes hundreds of miles before they start overheating, so acoustic detectors on tracks could buy operators a lot more lead time to address potential problems. Combined with radio tags on cars, the system can identify the exact car and axle that’s causing problems.

Better brakes are another important safety measure. A new generation of electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes for trains creates redundancy in the braking system and allows trains to apply brakes to all of their cars simultaneously. That means when a conductor slams the brakes, the cars don’t all run into each other. In a report last year, the FRA said that these brakes “improve both safety and braking performance of trains” but that train companies have been reluctant to invest in them due to cost.

The Obama administration created a requirement for ECP brakes at least on trains hauling flammable materials, but the Trump administration in 2018 revoked the requirement. “The Department’s analysis shows that the expected costs of requiring ECP brakes would be significantly higher than the expected benefits of the requirement,” according to a Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration statement.”

“the rail industry has been cutting its workforce for years despite turning record profits. Over the last six years, train companies cut 45,000 employees, 29 percent of their workforce. “In my view, all of this has directly contributed to where we are today — rail users experiencing serious deteriorations in rail service because, on too many parts of their networks, the railroads simply do not have a sufficient number of employees,” Martin Oberman, chair of the Surface Transportation Board, said in a statement last year.

In particular, the industry has relied on a system called precision-scheduled railroading that aggressively optimizes to run as much cargo with as few workers as possible. Rail workers don’t even get paid sick days. Congress last year had to intervene to avert a rail worker strike over poor staffing and sick leave.

Investor pressure to reduce spending can be more powerful than a locomotive, so it will take even stronger regulations and oversight to enact these safety measures and prevent such disasters in the future.

“There are things that could be done, the problem is they cost money to implement,” said Ditmeyer. “If railroads start shortening trains, Wall Street will punish them.”

Part of the problem is also psychological. Train wrecks grab a lot of attention, but it’s tough to convince local, state, and federal officials to have the resources in place before disasters unfold.

“It’s really hard to maintain that focus on preparedness,” Bierling said. “We cannot and should not be complacent.””

What a rail strike could mean for you (and the economy)

“Tens of thousands of freight rail workers are prepared to go on strike on Friday at 12:01 am, which could have wide-ranging effects across the economy. It’s already causing some disruptions for rail passengers, freight companies, and others.

The cause is a dispute between the freight industry and the workers who make it run.

Most of the 12 unions representing the workers have already agreed to a proposal put together by a presidential emergency board established by the White House over the summer to try to help resolve the dispute. The proposal includes a 24 percent increase in wages for workers by 2024, but many workers have complained that it fails to address leave, on-call scheduling, and poor working conditions.

The holdout unions’ position is that pay increases aren’t enough to make up for some real downsides — and dangerous aspects — of the job.

The two most powerful unions involved in the negotiations, which represent engineers and conductors, are continuing to resist the proposal, putting both sides in a deadlock. If workers do go on the strike they appear to be hurtling toward, it would be the first such strike in 30 years.”

“If a freight strike were to occur — and especially if it’s long-lasting — it could have disastrous effects across an already fragile economy still reeling from supply chain disruptions and inflation.

“Rail moves a lot of the foundational, basic goods that we don’t think about day-to-day,” said Rachel Premack, editorial director at FreightWaves, which covers supply chains. “They’ll move sand and gravel that would then be crushed into concrete for roads or for laying home foundations. Railroads move the chemicals used to purify water or to compromise fertilizer for crops, soybeans that could become food for humans or [animals] that are then food for humans. It’s a lot of early-chain-type goods.”

Many passenger trains also run on freight rails, and their service could be suspended. Amtrak has already warned of potential disruptions and canceled cross-country trains in anticipation of a strike, though so far its Northeast service will not be affected.”

“Replacing freight with other forms of transportation is not easy if workers do walk out. Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, told Vox in an interview that one train has the freight capacity of 400 semi-trucks. “I don’t know of a shipper who just has 400 semis sitting in a garage ready to be accessed,” he said. He noted that for agriculture, the timing couldn’t be worse because of harvest season, adding more urgency for a deal.”

“Under the Railway Labor Act, Congress has the ability to block or end a rail strike. Since 1963, it has passed legislation more than 10 times to intervene in rail disputes.

So far, though, Democratic leaders have been reluctant to commit to doing so, while Republicans have been eager to pressure workers into agreeing to the terms set by the presidential emergency board.

If Congress were to intervene, there are a few routes lawmakers could take. They could require the unions and carriers to accept the presidential emergency board’s conditions, which included a pay increase but no acknowledgment of other demands like sick leave. They could extend the existing cooling-off period so both sides have more time to negotiate. Or they could turn the talks over to independent arbitrators who would be tasked with finding a resolution.

For now, congressional Democrats are waiting to see what might come out of the talks the Labor Department is leading between unions and railroad carriers on Wednesday before they lay out a policy response.”

How Many Union Members Does It Take To Operate a Train?

“Labor unions such as the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers have been lobbying federal regulators to mandate that all freight trains operate with two-person crews in the cab. That’s long been the standard industry practice for safety reasons. The engineer drives the train, while the rail conductor handles equipment inspections and monitors track signals. Unions worry that advanced automation will allow railroads to run safely without a second person in the engine—and they want the government to step in to protect those jobs.

This dreaded automation is indeed occurring. All major rail systems in the U.S. now use positive train control (PTC), essentially a computer-based override system that monitors speed and track signals to avert collisions. The adoption of PTC—mandated by Congress since 2008—has helped dramatically reduce rail accidents. Data from the Association of American Railroads (AAR), an industry group, show accidents are down 30 percent since 2000, while employee injuries have fallen by more than 40 percent. Railroading is safer now than it has ever been, in large part due to those technological advances.

With PTC systems handling many of the in-cab duties that were formerly the rail conductor’s responsibility, railroads are seeking to reassign some of those workers. Because rail conductors typically do equipment inspections and perform other duties before trains depart from rail yards and after they return, some will continue to work in that capacity. But any changes to the employment structure have to be approved as part of collective bargaining.”

“without clear and convincing evidence that two-person crews are necessary for trains to operate safety—and with PTC doing a better job of preventing accidents than humans used to—there’s no compelling reason for the government to get involved in this dispute. Private railroads and unions can make their own arrangements.

If Biden needs more convincing, he should check in with his beloved Amtrak. The government-run passenger rail system dropped its own two-people-in-the-cab mandate back in the 1980s.”

Senate Republicans and Democrats Agree To Double Amtrak’s Funding

“An influx of additional funding would allow Amtrak to eliminate this backlog and pave the way for faster, more frequent service, passenger rail proponents argue. “There’s so much we can do, and it’s the biggest bang for the buck we can expend,” said Biden about increasing Amtrak funding back in April.

Nevertheless, one of the reasons that Amtrak’s maintenance backlog is so big in dollar terms is that it’s incredibly inefficient at spending the money it does get.

At current costs, Amtrak needs to spend $90 million per mile “merely to keep the same service as exists today,” wrote the Manhattan Institute’s Connor Harris in an April New York Post column. “For comparison, in countries such as France and Spain, less than half that cost per mile would cover a brand-new high-speed rail line good for speeds of more than 200 miles per hour.”

Getting Amtrak’s costs down to European levels would allow it to fix a lot more of its infrastructure for a lot less money. Lawmakers of both parties instead appear set on simply shoveling more taxpayer money at the inefficient agency.”