CSX's Acca Yard in Richmond is a major freight rail depot. (AiRVA Photography)

Every year over the past three years, lawmakers in Virginia’s General Assembly have introduced legislation that would require railroads moving freight through the commonwealth “to operate with a crew of at least two individuals.” 

This year, it’s being pushed by Del. Jeion Ward, D-Hampton, in a bill that’s been referred to the House Labor and Commerce Committee.

With the exception of a handful of short, local lines, that crew size is already standard across the industry. 

Freight crew size requirements may not seem especially relevant to the present; however, the dogged, state-by-state fight over their adoption says a lot more about the future of American rail, the economy, and the climate.

A flexible future

The tussle over how many workers belong aboard freight trains kicked off with the Railroad Safety Improvement Act of 2008, a response in part to the Chatsworth crash that same year which left 25 dead and other rail disasters. One of the main provisions Congress included mandated that railroads install Positive Train Control  — systems that are designed to prevent collisions and derailments, among other hazards. Since then, unions and industry leaders have been battling it out in the courts and state legislatures to decide to what extent new safety technologies could allow railroads to cut back on costly labor.

“This is about the future,” said Ted Greener, assistant vice president at the Association of American Railroads, a trade organization for freight railroads. “Railroads couldn’t go to less than two-person crews tomorrow. Crew size mandates are preemptively restricted. The industry just wants the flexibility to change its model in the future. A legislative mandate would just be locking in current standards and not allowing for this issue to be solved through collective bargaining as it historically has.”

The notion of train crews ever dipping below two people is unlikely, according to David Foster, executive director of Rail Solution, a Salem-based nonprofit. “The problem with having only one worker on board is that if there’s a problem while you’re out on the line with a 120-car coal train, for example, are you going to leave the train unattended in an emergency while that one worker goes to fix the problem?”

Although the engineer on the train would be alone, railroad execs are mooting a model that would involve a network of roving conductors in trucks who could spring into action in case of a problem. Many short line railroads already use such a system, but the real challenge for railroads is how to scale up the model to accommodate cross-country, long-haul routes.

‘A patchwork of state proposals’ 

Over the next 25 years, the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics forecasts the amount of goods moved via freight trains will go up by at least a quarter. If railroads are able to provide the same level of safe service with fewer workers, economists reckon trains will take up an ever larger portion of America’s freight market. Crew-size requirements could get in the way of that, however. 

“A patchwork of state proposals is confusing and impractical to comply with,” warned Elliott Long, a senior economic policy analyst at the Progressive Policy Institute.  “Railroads would have to keep track of each state’s requirements and then have to go hire new crew for specific states or reorganize shipping routes. It would be more time-consuming, and shipping costs are already a significant proportion of consumer spending.”

Six states have already enacted freight train crew size requirements, six more currently have legislation pending or introduced, and one state issued an executive ruling on the matter.  If Virginia’s bill were to pass, however, it could still be the first of its kind in the country to come into effect, since the others have either been overturned in the courts or are locked up in ongoing legal battles.

Although mandating two workers per train is certainly more expensive, it’s not clear whether such a rule would actually make freight transport safer.  “Whatever resources are allocated to keeping employment at current levels by mandating a second person be in the cabin is money that isn’t being spent on better automation or track standards,” said Patrick McLaughlin, a senior research fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center. “There’s ample evidence in other industries like automobiles and aviation that the more you can take the human out of the equation the safer things become.”

Although the savings from less labor could simply be pocketed by shareholders, McLaughlin believes the railroad industry’s self-interest will lead them to invest in safety. “They already have the incentive to make those investments in PTC and improved tracks,” he said. “There is a profit motive for not having your employees killed on the job.”

Freight and the climate

Whether trains can lower costs and gobble up more of the freight market could also have huge implications for global warming. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “freight railroads account for only 0.6 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, while accounting for 40 percent or more of long-distance freight volume.”

What goods don’t travel by rail tend to be transported by the trucking industry. Whereas medium- and heavy-duty trucks emit 23 percent of America’s carbon pollution from the transportation sector, all rail operations (including passenger trains) put out just 2 percent. That means climate-focused policy makers will likely try to shift more freight off of 18-wheelers and onto rails over the coming years, especially with President “Amtrak Joe” Biden in the White House.

“Trains are on average about 75 percent more fuel efficient than trucks,” Greener said.  “Pushing forth undue crew size requirements would only hinder the ability for trains to be more competitive and would result in more goods being transported by trucks and thus higher carbon emissions. That doesn’t square with our long-term climate goals or having a competitive rail sector.”

With trucking companies already testing driverless big rigs on highways across America, the rail industry’s concerns around staying cost-competitive are far from unfounded.  Although unions worry one-person crews could translate to job cuts, Greener envisions any coming changes as more of a reshuffling of where personnel are needed.

“Our industry is going to grow, and new and different jobs will be available in railroads,” said Greener.  “These questions around labor and automation are happening across the entire economy, but with railroads there is a bit of a novelty factor.”