In the aftermath of the tragic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, the spotlight has once again turned to the state of America’s railroads and the proposed legislation aiming to improve safety measures within the industry. However, as time has passed, it’s become increasingly apparent that the policies being touted may be more about political posturing than genuine safety enhancements. Led by Senators Sherrod Brown and J.D. Vance, the proposed bill has sparked debates surrounding labor negotiations, staffing models, and the role of government in regulating the railroad sector. Market Institute President Charles Sauer has a new article in Real Clear Markets exploring the issue.
“We are approaching the one-year anniversary of the massive train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, a tragic event that captivated the American news media for weeks after the black smoke cleared. While President Biden has yet to visit the small village, the accident drew no shortage of high-profile politicians, including former President Trump and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. With these big names also came many bold claims about the state of the nation’s railroads and calls for action to impose a slew of new rules and mandates for the sector.
As time has passed, it has become increasingly clear that the incident was the exception – not the rule – and that supposed policy solutions emanating from the accident have little do with safety and more about political posturing. Instead, the rail “safety” legislation in the U.S. Senate has far more to do with placating organized labor and political theater.
Recent reports indicate the bill sponsored by Sen. Sherrod Brown is at a standstill with roughly 58 votes. Brown’s fellow Senator from Ohio, J.D. Vance, insists there are two more Republicans silently supporting the bill and can get it over the hump. With the efficient movement of goods in mind, we should hope that is not the case.
The bill would circumvent private labor negotiations between railroads and their employees and disallow railroads from changing their staffing models in the future. Railroads today operate with two people in the locomotive cab, but in the future may be able to reassign one of those workers to a better job out in the field. The Brown-Vance legislation would block this by freezing the two-person model in place.
Putting the Biden Administration in the conductor’s seat is not the right role for government and would put railroads at an even larger disadvantage when competing with trucks who are also attempting to modernize and automate. Moreover, data from the Federal Railroad Administration shows the number one cause of train accidents today is human error. Increasing safety in this case means reducing the duplicative role of humans in driving trains. Safety enhancement is ostensibly the goal of the legislation.
Additionally, the legislation attempts to create new inspection jobs and protect old ones. “Although train crews are qualified to carry out pre-trip inspections, the bill requires that a (unionized) mechanical inspector conduct an added examination at a specified inspection site,” writes the Bloomberg editorial board. “If the nearest site is further away than the train’s destination, the crew will need to push past its intended stop, wait at the site for the train to be inspected for the trip it has already taken, then reverse itself to get back to where it planned to go. Only in Congress does this kind of thing seem reasonable,” they conclude.
Indeed, and as noted by a range of stakeholders, the bill also seeks to greatly hinder the movement of goods, namely by handing outsized authority to Secretary Buttigieg to pursue an endless stream of new regulations. The net effect will be slower moving and more expensive goods.https://8bf3707b69f07d08b998ab9640882a68.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-40/html/container.html
“As currently written, these rulemakings would avoid cost-benefit analysis (CBA),” a large coalition of conservatives wrote last year. “Conservatives have long championed the need for CBA because no human activity is 100% safe 100% of the time,” they add. “Every activity involves some form of CBA. New railroad safety laws should certainly require them, including a survey of the likely risks created as railroads and shippers alter procedures to mitigate the cost of the new rules.”
Indeed, opposition on the right is near unanimous, ranging from the Wall Street Journal and National Review to government watchdogs.”