Freight rail companies rip Biden over new rule they say will worsen supply chain backlog

Railroad companies that haul freight are pressing the Biden administration to ditch a proposed labor rule they believe will only worsen the country’s already overtaxed supply chain.

Currently, the Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration lets freight rail haulers establish their own crew requirements. But the administration wants to implement a rule that was first proposed during the Obama administration in 2016 that permanently requires all freight trains to include traditional engineer-conductor teams; Obama left office before the regulation was finished.

The Washington Examiner was the first to report on the proposed rule.

During his 2020 campaign, then-Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden pledged to the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers that if he became president he would implement the “Rule of Two.”

“It’s about time our government fought for you as hard as you’ve been fighting for our country,” Biden noted in a virtual speech to the union’s members at the time.

“I’m going to keep fighting for those crews, requiring two-person crews on freight trains, protecting transit workers from assault, making sure that everyone has what they need to safely do their job. Period,” he said.

Initially, the ‘rule of two’ was included in the recently passed $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, but it was eventually removed. That said, Biden’s nominee to serve as head of the FRA, Amit Bose, said during his Senate confirmation hearings last month that the agency is preparing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would revive the Obama-era rule.

Bose said that it was needed so as to prevent a “patchwork of laws” regarding the issue as some states around the country have already mandated the crew of two rule.

“At the heart of the crew-size debate is a yearslong battle between labor and management on the subject of automation,” the Examiner reported. “Unions have long opposed freight railroads incorporating automated safety systems that would naturally reduce the size of operating crews over safety concerns.

“Freight railroads, on the other hand, claim that there isn’t definitive data suggesting that two-person crews are substantively safer than one-person crews. That line of argument prompted the FRA to abandon the rule in 2019,” the outlet added.

In addition, freight rail haulers began relying heavily on a Positive Train Control system last year, which, according to industry experts, not only gives companies the opportunity to safety compete in an industry that is trending toward automation but also became necessary in order to handle increased freight volumes amid other supply chain problems that were laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Freight rail companies also argue that, by allowing them to slowly reduce crew sizes on a case-by-case basis, it will “slow the workforce impact that automation will have on the roughly 40,000 union operators employed by private freight railroads,” the Examiner reported.

The outlet noted that Ian Jeffries, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, plans to argue against the two-crew rule during testimony on Wednesday before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

According to prepared testimony obtained by the Examiner, Jeffries will call on lawmakers to “direct the FRA and other modal administrations at the Department of Transportation to be more forward-thinking in their rulemaking processes and approaches to the development, testing, and incorporation of new safety technologies.”

“Congress should ensure the FRA uses current data to establish the need for any new regulation and validates that safety benefits exceed the cost of its implementation,” says Jefferies’s written testimony. “There are no data showing that a two-person crew mandate would enhance safety. Moreover, this mandate could stifle the adoption of new technologies that would enhance the safety and efficiency of the rail network in the long-term.”

He will also say that, in arguing against the rule, “railroads are not seeking the ability to utilize one-person crews haphazardly, but rather they want to work with rail labor under the existing collective bargaining framework — as they have for decades — to identify when conditions would allow for a reduction in the number of crewmembers without jeopardizing safety.”

The administration has been faced with mounting supply chain issues for months as chokepoints all along the chain — from ports to rail and trucking shortages, to a dearth of workers — has made the situation worse, leading to price spikes and shortages.

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