In my latest policy brief, “Pathways and Policy for 21st Century Freight Rail,” I argue that U.S. freight railroads must adopt automation technologies in order to remain competitive with trucks that are anticipated to be automated in the coming years. Automated track inspection (ATI), which is one form of rail automation, applies to infrastructure safety. It is conducted by rail vehicles equipped with autonomous track geometry measurement systems. In recent years, several major railroads have deployed ATI in various degrees on their networks with the support of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).
These early experiences with ATI, in which ATI augments manual visual inspections by track inspectors long required by FRA rules, have yielded very positive safety results. Unfortunately, recent actions by President Joe Biden’s Federal Railroad Administration to revoke approval of automated track inspection use by rail carriers call into question the administration’s commitment to rail safety.
For example, on Oct. 13, FRA denied Norfolk Southern Railway’s request for an extension of its FRA-authorized ATI test program, in which the railroad had asked the agency to extend its ATI test program until FRA issued a decision on Norfolk Southern’s March 2021 ATI waiver petition. Explaining the basis for his agency’s decision, Federal Railroad Administration Acting Administrator Amit Bose wrote to Norfolk Southern, “FRA finds that continuation of the Test Program will not likely result in any new, significant data.”
The Federal Railroad Administration’s position is curious because the agency had previously acknowledged the safety benefits observed in Norfolk Southern’s automated track inspection test program, as well as the safety benefits of ATI the agency has observed in FRA’s own ATI program. Yet FRA is deciding to end the railroad’s use of ATI—at least for the time being. In essence, a safety regulator has adopted a position against improved safety.
This apparent contradiction between FRA’s mission and practice was not lost on members of Congress. Following FRA’s strange rationalization provided in its letter to Norfolk Southern, 23 senators wrote to Administrator Bose on Oct. 29 requesting that FRA explain why it is shutting down ATI testing, noting that “[i]n some cases, the ATI tests have resulted in an over 90 percent reduction in unprotected main track defects per 100 miles tested.”
In light of the available evidence, we must entertain the very real possibility that the Biden FRA has been captured by labor unions representing track inspectors. The only opposition to Norfolk Southern’s request for extension of its ATI test program came from the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division (BMWED). In its letter to FRA, BMWED misrepresents basic facts, such as suggesting that ATI is presently designed to replace manual visual track inspections rather than augment them.
Indeed, in previously approved FRA ATI pilots, one important finding, as I note in my brief, is that ATI deployment has “allowed for the redeployment of manual track inspectors to segments with greater known needs,” leading to inspectors “recording nearly three times the number of geometry defects per 100 miles than were identified by track inspectors systemwide.”
It is unfortunate that the Biden FRA is reversing the agency’s approach to ATI. By adopting the hardline anti-innovation stance espoused by some railway labor unions, FRA will not only increase safety risks to the public but to railroad employees themselves, who are routinely exposed to safety hazards in the field that automation can mitigate.
This also bodes poorly for other types of automation in the railroad industry. According to the most recent Unified Agenda of Regulatory and Deregulatory Actions, FRA is poised to soon re-propose a discredited minimum crew-size regulation, presumably at the behest of labor unions opposed to safety-enhancing and cost-saving train automation. Over the long-run, this rule would disadvantage freight rail carriers relative to their truck competitors and incentivize rail customers to shift their traffic to trucks.
As I conclude in my brief, this anti-automation rail policy agenda runs counter to the Biden administration’s stated commitment to reducing transportation sector greenhouse gas emissions and pollutants because “when compared to freight rail on a ton-miles basis, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that trucks emit approximately 10 times as much carbon dioxide (CO2), two-and-a-half times as much nitrogen oxides (NOX), and more than three times as much fine particulate matter (PM2.5).”
Congress should continue demanding answers from Federal Railroad Administration Acting Administrator Bose and conduct close oversight of a regulator explicitly ordered by Congress to “consider the assignment and maintenance of safety as the highest priority, recognizing the clear intent, encouragement, and dedication of Congress to the furtherance of the highest degree of safety in railroad transportation.”