Mandating Minimum Crew Size for Freight Trains Is Still a Bad Idea

Money for extra operators would be better spent on infrastructure, maintenance, and automation

“A freight train weighs between 3,000 to 18,000 tons. . . . That is a lot of weight moving at a high speed across the state and through our communities,” said a state lawmaker on February 4th, announcing a proposal that would legally mandate at least two operators in the cabin for freight trains in Oklahoma. The legislator went on to argue that the elimination of a similar nationwide regulation “is a clear signal that the federal government wants the states to take care of this issue. . . . And we should.”

Oklahoma and Wyoming recently joined 15 other states in considering such legal mandates. Unfortunately, some state legislatures seem to be moving forward without due diligence. It’s a textbook case of something that also happens in Washington, DC, as well as in American cities and towns: regulating without seeing the bigger picture.

Some lawmakers are simply confused about the origins of this proposal. First, the federal government didn’t eliminate a regulation that mandates a minimum crew size—no such rule ever went into effect. Second, the administration did not intend for states to step up and impose a mandate of their own. On the contrary, the official retraction states that the “[Federal Railroad Administration] finds that no regulation of train crew staffing is necessary or appropriate at this time.”

In fact, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) went so far as to explicitly state that its decision not to promulgate a minimum-crew-size rule would “preempt all state laws attempting to regulate train crew staffing in any manner.”

Some background might help. In 2016, the FRA proposed a rule requiring that freight train crews have at least two operators. It initially claimed, without evidence, that one-person crews are inherently more dangerous than two-person crews. Regulators assumed that increasing the number of operators was the most effective way to improve freight railway safety. This proposal ignored the most prominent sources of improved safety outcomes in railway operation over the past few decades: investments in infrastructure, maintenance, and automation. It also ignored the most common cause of rail accidents: operator error.

“Like auto accidents, most railroad accidents that occur these days are primarily caused by operators’ mistakes or oversight,” one of us (McLaughlin) wrote at the time, adding, “A regulation that permanently requires a minimum crew size of two — especially when there is no evidence that one-person crews are less safe — can only stand in the way of further reductions in accidents caused by human error.”

In rescinding the proposal three years later, the FRA stated that despite studying the issue in depth, it could not provide reliable or conclusive data suggesting that one-person crews are less safe than larger crews. The FRA also noted that one-person operations “have not yet raised serious safety concerns.” That has not prevented Colorado, Illinois, and Nevada from passing laws mandating two-person crews since 2019. At least 17 other states are considering following suit.

A Better Way Forward

A careful analysis of the historical causes of safety improvements in rail transportation indicates that track and equipment expenditures are much more important to safety than crew size. Beyond maintenance and equipment, using automation to reduce accidents caused by human error also has a proven track record. The danger in mandating something that’s not obviously effective, such as minimum crew sizes, is that states will end up shifting the industry’s scarce resources away from what obviously is effective. This can also hinder further development of innovative technologies that can deliver even greater safety.

To see why investments in automation in particular can be more effective, it’s helpful to consider how the human element plays out in other types of transportation. Safety outcomes seem to improve when humans have less control over driving operations, not more.

Many decades ago, the introduction and widespread adoption of autopilot precipitated a 90 percent reduction in crashes attributed to pilots, according to a 2015 report. Automobile safety has likewise improved because of the intelligent-driver technology introduced in recent years, such as lane-departure warnings, pedestrian detection, and automatic emergency braking.

The advent of completely driverless cars offers even more promise, primarily by reducing human error, which, according to the US Department of Transportation, accounts for 94 percent of crashes. Driverless cars could save as many as 21,700 lives and reduce the number of crashes by over four million annually, according to a study from the Eno Center for Transportation.

Similarly, railroad safety has dramatically improved over the past several decades. The total number of train accidents on major freight railroad systems fell from over 11,000 in 1978 to 1,867 in 2013, even while revenue ton-miles—a standard metric of train usage—doubled during the same period.

A study that one of us (McLaughlin) coauthored with Jerry Ellig found that most of this tremendous gain in safety is attributable to the removal of economic regulations that deterred investment in—you guessed it—equipment, track, and improvements in operational practices. Once those regulatory obstacles to investing were removed, railroads themselves found ways to improve operations and safety, primarily by spending more on equipment and track.

The positive relationship between safety and investment raises the issue of unintended consequences. As already noted, any regulation—even a safety regulation—that deters investment in the safest equipment and practices can have the perverse effect of increasing the accident rate. By requiring a greater expenditure on labor (without evidence it would improve safety), proposals that mandate minimum train crew sizes could financially constrain some railroads from making other safety-improving investments and ultimately lead to a less safe freight rail system.