The Federal Railroad Administration just announced a final rule regarding crew size on trains, establishing that most freight trains will be required to have a minimum of two crew members on board. The issue of train crew size has been the topic of much discussion for more than a decade and was first proposed under President Obama’s Administration. STC sees the rule as a prime example of politics at play in the regulatory process. In fact, it seems evident that with each passing day, transportation safety is becoming more political, which does not bode well for empowering industry to drive down the crash numbers.

The FRA argues that absent this rule, railroads could initiate single-crew operations without performing a rigorous risk assessment, mitigating known risks, or even notifying FRA. The railroad unions have long opposed one-person crews due to safety and job concerns, and labor agreements requiring two-person crews have been in place for 30 years at the major Class I railroads. Many of the short-line and regional railroads operate with one-person crews and their train accident rates are down 42 percent, since 2000 according to industry advocates. To some, this rule feels like a solution in search of a problem.

The railroads’ position is train crew size should be determined through contract talks, not by government regulators or legislators. The current norm on Class I’s is two-person crews, and they say there is not enough data to show that two-person crews are safer. They back it up by reporting the casualty rate for Class I railroad employees has dropped by 63% since 2000—reaching an all-time low in 2023. Indeed, the industry points out that it is constantly innovating and implementing risk and performance-based solutions to enhance rail safety such as strategically using ground-based personnel, positive train control, advanced braking systems, and advanced technology for the inspection and monitoring of equipment. Importantly, the industry also has been quick to point out that FRA abandoned the original version of this rule during the Trump administration, with the agency saying in 2019 that there was not enough evidence to support it, only to pick it back up in the next Democratic administration.

It is interesting the same Department of Transportation that is supporting innovation in other modes, to include autonomous vehicles in trucking – which theoretically would have no “crew” on board – is taking a different approach with the railroads in this rule by going in the opposite direction.  FRA also noted in its announcement that this was a “common sense” rule.

Indeed, when looking at crash data from rail and trucking, in 2021, the large truck and bus crash rate was 1.56 per million road miles (for all crashes, and, by STC’s calculation, 1.35 for those that are human factors-related), and in 2022 the railroads had a human factors-caused accident rate of 1.34 per million train miles. While these numbers aren’t an apples-to-apples comparison, it offers perspective on the performance of these two modes. Even more interesting is when you peer into the FRA regulations on HOS and fatigue management, you see discretionary words like “may” or “should” plastered in different sections, which our trucking readers will view as anathema.

On March 27, the DOT Office of Inspector General issued a report on FRA’s oversight of Hours of Service and Fatigue Management requirements over the railroads. The report found several deficiencies and provided 19 recommendations to FRA, to which they concurred with all 19. The report also noted there are only three FRA staff in two divisions— a HOS subject matter expert (SME) and two fatigue SMEs— that oversee HOS compliance and fatigue management for the entire railroad industry. The final point OIG notes in the report is that FRA does not have the procedures and accurate data necessary to effectively target its limited resources or adequately oversee different railroad classes. On April 16 the OIG announced it was initiating an Audit on FRA’s oversight and enforcement of the Roadway Worker Protection program. Our high-level take from the OIG HOS investigation and the announcement of this additional audit is that the FRA needs to get its own house in order before it imposes stricter, burdensome, and costly rules on the industry it regulates.

From the big-picture perspective, it appears to STC that with each passing day, significant decisions made with respect to the governance and oversight of the transportation industry is becoming increasingly politically motivated. We are losing sight of the foundational element in transportation: safety. The trucking industry’s crash numbers are up, and we need to promote innovation and empower the regulated industry to fix it – transportation is not a place to play politics.