Guest Op-Ed: House Transportation Bill Incomplete on U.S. Rail Policy

The House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee recently passed a large-scale surface transportation bill, and it is safe to say it misses the mark on several fronts, particularly on rail policy. This is especially true given that the Senate has passed its own bill through two committees in a bipartisan manner, largely devoid of unneeded, prescriptive business mandates.

The core goal of a transportation bill should be to maintain a fully integrated transportation system, supported through sustained investments. It can also be an important vehicle for reducing greenhouse gas emissions given that transportation is the largest source of emissions.

Privately owned freight rail—an environmentally efficient way to move goods over land and a mere 0.6% of all GHG emissions—could play a central role in making progress on both fronts. We agree with Transportation Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio when he recently argued Congress should treat rail as a “central part of the solution to climate change.”

But this can only happen if the legislation enables railroads to compete in a vibrant market undergoing rapid change, including electric and autonomous operations across modes. Unfortunately, the House is pushing many of the same anticompetitive policies it did in 2020 legislation, which failed to become law before the change in Congress. Ironically, the House’s Invest Act is at direct odds with the stated goals of the majority.

For instance, the legislation attempts to usurp ongoing collective bargaining negotiations by mandating most freight trains operate with two people in the cab of a locomotive in perpetuity. Put simply, there is no safety justification for such a policy, as outlined by federal regulators across multiple administrations, and such a prescription would clearly limit freight transportation competition.

“America’s infrastructure legislation must be focused on new effective technologies,” says Brookings Institution economist Clifford Winston. “Policymakers should stop trying to micromanage rail’s current operations and should help rail enter a future of autonomy,” he added.

Indeed, rail crew size adjustments have been determined through collective bargaining under the Railway Labor Act for decades. Throughout this period, railroad safety has only improved. Putting a thumb on the scale would only stand to move more goods to the strained highways the surface transportation bill is trying to address.

Locking current operating models in place would also “exclude freight rail from the increased productivity of the digital age, even with the widespread anticipation of self-driving cars and semis,” says Elliott Long of the Progressive Policy Institute.

In addition, the House bill would also slow the movement of goods and exacerbate congestion for communities at North American borders by prohibiting Mexican crews from delivering trains into U.S. rail yards. While one could safely assume this is intended to protect U.S. jobs, the reality is that this practice has long been the norm on the Canadian border and in that time, it has not reduced hours, jobs or compensation for U.S. rail workers. In fact, as capacity across the Laredo International Rail Bridge has increased, the region has become a preeminent hub for logistics and new jobs have been created throughout the supply chain in the U.S. to handle the additional trains.

Prohibiting this common practice via legislation would have obvious effects. Namely, fluidity and efficiency would suffer for the 23-plus trains crossing the border every day. Rather than move quickly from origin to destination, trains would have to come to a full stop. This would create a bottleneck which would have very real consequences for the scores of U.S. jobs dependent on a functional supply chain.

It is no wonder that local lawmakers support the ability for Mexican crews to enter the U.S. in a limited capacity to protect the movement of goods and reduce blocked grade crossings.

All told, despite the Senate showing a path towards bipartisan compromise and measured rail policy, the House legislation takes the wrong path. By attempting to saddle railroads with new operational mandates, is in direct conflict with the very stated goals of the chamber’s leadership—create and sustain good paying jobs; restore global competitiveness; tackle climate change; modernize infrastructure; and spur long-term economic growth. These are all things freight railroads will play a prominent role in if not hindered by misguided policies.

For freight railroads—which did not seek or receive federal stimulus money throughout the COVID pandemic and are not asking for significant dollars within the bill—the push to saddle our most efficient freight mode with new regulations is troubling.

Let’s hope in time both chambers can work across the aisle to do better and follow the Senate’s lead.

The views expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Eno Center for Transportation.

Search Eno Transportation Weekly

Latest Issues

Happening on the Hill