Why the US should let freight rail innovate

Why the US should let freight rail innovate

The United States’ transportation infrastructure, like the rest of the nation’s economy, is in the midst of a revolution. Innovative technologies are enabling improvements in efficiency, price, and consumer satisfaction in every mode of transportation, but especially in the nation’s rail industry. However, against that backdrop, an outdated federal regulatory atmosphere is preventing our railways from keeping pace. It’s time for federal rail regulation to embrace the opportunity to reduce freeway congestion, improve safety, and support American economic growth for decades to come.

Rail transit, specifically freight rail transit, is an essential part of our nation’s infrastructure and economy. Every day, the US freight system moves 48 million tons of goods — that’s cars, televisions, coal, beef, and everything else that makes modern life possible. As the US population increases, railways will become even more important. The US Department of Transportation (DOT) estimates that there will be an 88 percent increase in rail freight demand by 2035. To meet that demand, the deployment of automated systems will be required.

Unfortunately, the current regulatory regime creates major obstacles for freight railroads seeking to embrace highly automated systems. That should come as no surprise, since the federal government’s approach to railway regulation comes from the era of steam locomotives and Pullman cars.

For instance, the DOT is considering mandating minimum crew sizes on trains — just as technological change is creating an entirely new staffing paradigm. The department has also shown little enthusiasm for automated track inspection tools that could continue to improve safety outcomes. Perhaps most perplexing, waivers to test new technologies, even in controlled environments, are hard to obtain and often come with needless — seemingly arbitrary — limitations. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) must do better. 

Top issue: obstacles to automation

All of these issues need to be addressed, but they are of secondary importance when compared with more fundamental obstacles to automation currently in FRA regulation. One rule, in particular, explicitly requires that only a human can move a locomotive, while many others implicitly articulate the same prohibition.

Luckily, the most problematic requirements that limit the adoption of highly automated systems are also the most straightforward to fix. DOT could simply express a more expansive definition of “person” via interpretive guidance (as has been issued by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the context of highly automated systems in the passenger vehicle context) or via formal rulemaking. Either approach would eliminate the need for a wholesale rewrite of the relevant regulations.

The benefits of making such a change would be felt almost immediately. Highly automated trains hold the same promise as highly automated road-going vehicles, but their promise is more readily realized because the environments in which trains operate are less complex than roadways. What’s more, while automated cars struggle with putting the large, power-intensive components needed for automation into a small car, rail systems are confronted by no analogous spatial considerations. Thus, while so-called “Level 5” automation (in which the car can operate entirely on its own under all conditions) is rarely seriously discussed as a near-term possibility for automobiles, it is a real possibility for railroads.

It should come as no surprise that industries need to adopt new technologies in order to be competitive, and railways are no exception. However, if federal law keeps freight rail trapped in the past, even as other transportation leaps into the modern era, it will make consumer goods more expensive and railroads less safe. Federal policymakers should adopt a flexible regulatory posture as they seek to match pace with a private industry striving to modernize the way they operate. America’s twenty-first century economy depends on innovation such as this.

Brian Jencunas is a state affairs analyst for the R Street Institute in Washington, DC. Contact him at bjencunas@rstreet.org.