Railway Safety Act is a Regulatory Nightmare

John Shelton, Policy Advisor

In May, just one month after a tragic freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation rushed to pass a new railway safety bill. Unfortunately, the Railway Safety Act only serves to empower federal bureaucrats while doing precious little to prevent future derailments.

The fact that the bill was written before the completion of the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the causes of the East Palestine accident is a telltale sign of bad legislation. It suggests that pre-existing policy preferences are being repackaged as an appropriate response to the Ohio tragedy.

Since the bill does not start with recognizing the determinants of the derailment, it can only rush to judgement in creating new rules and regulations. The bill does not identify any market or procedural failures that would justify new regulations. It is simply proffered as evidence of government “doing something.”

The vast majority of freight in the US is transported by truck, not rail. In 2020, trucking carried 12.5 billion tons of freight, which accounted for nearly two-thirds of total freight weight. Railways, in comparison, carried only 1.4 billion tons. When it comes to accidents, truck crashes involving hazardous materials are more frequent and far more deadly. Yet trail derailments, though comparatively rare, garner wall-to-wall media coverage, artificially creating the demand for government action where it is completely unwarranted.

Thus, it comes as no surprise that some of the proposed regulations in the Railway Safety Act seem designed to sound good to the casual observer but actually have no bearing on railway safety. For example, the bill requires two person crews, despite the fact that railroads have reduced crew size while improving safety in recent decades. Virtually all of rail traffic in Europe is moved by one-man crews. In 2016, the Federal Railroad Administration proposed a rule requiring train crews to have two operators – only to rescind the rule three years later, once the data demonstrated no correlation between larger crew size and safety. For what it’s worth, the East Palestine crash was manned by a crew of three people.

Other provisions simply add needless complications and expenses so typical of our bureaucratic state. For example, despite crews being qualified to carry out pre-trip inspections, the bill requires a (unionized) mechanical inspector to conduct an additional inspection at a specified site. If the nearest site is further away than the train’s destination, the crew would need to pass its intended stop, get inspected, then double back to the original destination. The bill gives no consideration to the higher costs, lost time, or greater environmental impact such goose chases will cause.

While the bill does expand oversight of hazardous materials, it grants Secretary Buttigieg nearly open-ended rulemaking authority. The last thing any conservative should support is giving any bureaucrat more power over anything – especially one as incompetent as Pete Buttigieg.

Instead, we should be deregulating railways. During their four years in office, the Trump-Pence administration repealed regulations on electronically controlled pneumatic brakes, brake safety inspections, two-person crew requirements, minimum rail safety requirements, recurring safety audits, and ethylene oxide. And yet, despite this massive deregulation, train derailments were down on average compared to the Obama administration. In fact, according to the Association of American Railroads, derailments are down 31% since 2000.

Today, American railroads are safer than ever before. Hazmat incidents are down 78% since 2000, and mainline accidents are down 44% thanks to technology upgrades over the years. The Railway Safety Act will not make our communities any safer – but it will add layers of needless bureaucracy that will make every product shipped by rail more expensive.