The 2 Man Crew Mandate Threatens US Leadership In Freight Rail

The freight rail industry has long settled staffing decisions at the bargaining table. It has pursued autonomous technologies for some time, adding staff as needed to support trips in inclement weather and special circumstances. However the Biden Administration, driven in part by major rail unions, would derail the progress to autonomy by mandating the number of workers on a train. This diktat contradicts long-standing bipartisan policy which has allowed the freight rail freedom and flexibility to manage networks to maximize investment, innovation, safety, and climate goals. Moreover, it contradicts federal policy for autonomous cars, trucks, and public transit.

Autonomous cars and trucks

Self-driving cars have been in the public imagination for a century, but their reality has only emerged in recent years following billions of dollars of investment, public policy efforts, and technological innovation. Autonomy in transportation is enabled by a series of technologies including sensors, infrared cameras, radar, lidar, GPS, odometry, and control systems. SAE International certifies the 5 levels of vehicle automation, with 2, called hands off, being the prevailing level for automobiles. Importantly these levels refer to autonomy on the road, not the ability of its computer systems to withstand hacking. As such cybersecurity software innovator Dan O’Dowd founded the Dawn Project to make un-hackable software for autonomous vehicles.

The arguments for automation include but are not limited to improved safety and prevention of accidents caused by human error (e.g. distraction, drunkenness, speeding, recklessness, fatigue etc.). With improved intelligence, vehicles can be scheduled to optimize throughput, reduce congestion, and limit emission. Climate resilience is achieved through the reduction of greenhouse emissions by transitioning vehicle fuel to a green-powered electric grid and the substitution of more energy efficient vehicles and smart transportation systems. Similar paradigms are underway for trucks, the dominant form of shipment for goods in the USA.

One key industrial difference between trucks and cars is that the former is unionized and hence can exert political power. The Teamsters which represent 1.4 million truck drivers have succeeded to slow progress on self-driving trucks on the argument of job displacement.

However demographic trends are stacked against traditional trucking. As the Wall Street Journal reports, generational retirement and the pandemic has created a historic shortage of 80,000 drivers. Moreover, the economic gains of autonomous trucking are significant and could cut 15-20 percent of cost of operating a truck. This could translate into reduced costs and greater reliability for shippers, savings which theoretically would be passed on to consumers and which would lessen some inflationary and supply chain challenges. Autonomous trucking envisions long haul trips across America. Human drivers only enter the picture should the truck need to navigate a road blockage or enter a city, a trip enabled by a person sitting in a control center, a camera instrumented on the truck, and a high quality, low-latency 5G internet connection.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) release of AV 4.0 to ensure leadership in automated vehicle technologies—including the call for self-regulation to aid the speedy rollout of technology—suggests that this has been a bipartisan priority for some time.

Freight Rail

The case for autonomy is strongest for freight rail which unsurprisingly scores the highest of the American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) report card of US infrastructure. Its value proposition for economy, climate, and safety is well-documented. Freight rail is privately owned and hence must build and maintain its own networks; it does this to the tune of about $22 billion annually. It operates on fixed and private right-of-ways, even less encumbered by outside factors than highway trucks. Moreover, trucking relies on the public provision of highways, a perpetual pork barrel boondoggle which wastes $18 billion annually.

Freight rail is on order of magnitude greener and more efficient than trucking, reducing emissions on average by some 75 percent; modern locomotives use less energy, containers can be double stacked, and trains run on dedicated channels far away from urban areas. Freight rail also invest significantly in positive train control and other safety technologies to ensure that trains stop automatically should there be a disturbance on or near the track. Freight rail has a lower injury rate than trucking, mining, manufacturing, and even grocery stores.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) first proposed a crew mandate in 2016 but abandoned it in 2019. In the meanwhile, the freight rail industry has continued safety implementation, using systems like Automated Track Inspection that outperforms human inspections by as much as 90 percent. The issue picked up again in 2021 with the election of President Biden, self-dubbed the most union-friendly POTUS ever.

The mandate would come at a precarious time for railroads, which are experiencing labor shortages. Rather than helping alleviate that, like they are in trucking, the administration considers freezing jobs in place – to the detriment of further investment in technology, say experts like Patrick McLaughlin at the Mercatus Center.

At the same time, intervention would be unprecedented as staffing decisions typically occur through collective bargaining. Regulation would supersede that process, which came to a head recently when railroads and their workers were released from contract mediation. This kickstarts a 30-day cooling off period, followed by the likely appointment of arbitrators from the President, who will offer recommendations. Should parties fail to reach agreement by the end of September, the U.S. could see disruptions on the rail network. The White House is not supposed to politicize the process.

Human driver mandates derail the policy for autonomy

It is incoherent and illogical that autonomy should be the norm in passenger rail but not in freight. Singapore, Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur, and Dubai operate public transit lines at the highest grade of automation. The technology has been in play for more than 50 years, and thousands of systems in other locales employ some of level of automation and are evolving.

The US has been considered to the world leader in freight rail, and automation is just the next step. The Biden Administration’s position against automation in freight rail differs with evolution around the world, and a two-person crew mandate threatens US leadership in investment and innovation.

Originally published in Forbes.