On any given day some 7,000 freight trains are in motion around the United States, with perhaps 70,000 individual freight cars and intermodal units in transit daily (link). (Here is the US DOT Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) website, which provides a fair amount of information about the industry.) Freight rail is big business, with record profits over the past several years. And it is occasionally an industry prone to accidents, failures, and disasters. Most recently was the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train, resulting in the release of a large amount of vinyl chloride, a flammable and toxic chemical, near the town of Palestine, Ohio. The full extent of this catastrophe is not yet known.
Derailments, crashes, fires, and explosions make the news. But there is a more insidious process at work as well: the relentless effort by the large freight rail companies to increase profits by increasing the volume of freight and reducing costs. And -- as is true in many other risky business operations -- reducing costs has worrisome consequences for safety (link). Reducing personnel is one way of reducing costs, and crew size on freight trains has been reduced substantially. There were only two crew members on the Palestine, Ohio train (engineer and conductor) that derailed, and the industry wants to preserve the freedom to reduce the cabin crew to a single engineer (link). Increasing the number of cars -- and therefore the length of individual trains -- is another way of reducing costs for a ton-mile of transportation; and sure enough, trains are now traveling around the country that are substantially more than a mile long. Another strategy for cost "containment" is the strategy of tightening operations in and around large rail yards, streamlining the process of re-mixing cars into trains with different destinations. And the tighter the schedules become, the more tightly-linked the system becomes. So a disruption in St. Louis can lead to congestion in Pittsburgh.
The railroad companies and the Association of American Railroads make the case that the rail safety safety record has improved significantly over recent years; link. And it is of course true that there is a business case for maintaining safe operations. However, it is plain that voluntary efforts at maintaining public safety are insufficient when they conflict directly with other business priorities.
Rail operations and business management plainly involve risks for the public; so government regulation of the industry is crucial. But the economic power of railroads -- today as well as in the 1880s -- allows the companies, their associations, and their lobbyists to block sensible regulations that plainly serve the interests of the public (plainly, at least, to neutral observers). Because railroads are largely a form of interstate commerce, states and local authorities have little or no ability to regulate safety. Instead, this authority is assigned to the Congress and the Department of Transportation Federal Railroad Administration. And yet the hazards created by railroads are inherently local, and local and state authorities have almost no jurisdiction.
Consider the photo above. It is a freight train stopped across an unguarded rural rail crossing in Michigan. The train will sit across the road for an extended period of time, from ten minutes to an hour. And the relatively few people who use the road to get to work, to take children to school, to go shopping or bowling (yes, we have bowling alleys in Michigan) -- these people will simply have to wait, or to take a circuitous route around the obstruction. Fortunately in this local instance in Michigan the blockages are relatively short and there are other routes that drivers can take.
But turn now to York, Alabama, as reported in the July 15, 2023 New York Times (link). Peter Eavis, Mark Walker, and Niraj Chokshi describe a chronic problem in this small town on a rail line owned by Norfolk Southern. "Freight trains frequently stop and block the roads of York, Ala., sometimes for hours. Emergency services and health care workers can't get in, and those trapped inside can't get out." "On a sweltering election day in June 2022, a train blockage lasted more than 10 hours, forcing many people, some old and ill, to shelter in an arts center." And the problem is getting worse, as freight trains become longer and longer, with more frequent (and longer) periods in which a train blocks a crossing.
The article makes the point that state and local laws aimed at regulating these blockages have been regularly overturned by the courts, and efforts to introduce Federal remedies have failed. "Congressional proposals to address the issue have failed to overcome opposition from the rail industry." The article indicates that the lobbying efforts of the rail companies and their industry associations are highly effective in shaping legislation and regulation that affects the industry. They report that the rail companies and the AAR have spent $454 million in lobbying over the past twenty years, including campaign contributions to key legislators. They also make the point that the extent of the problem of extended blockages of rail crossings is poorly documented, since there are more than 200,000 rail crossings and and only a low level of reporting of individual blockages. Long freight trains are part of the problem, because trains longer than a mile exceed the length of many sidings that were previously used to manage train traffic without blocking crossings.
This is a familiar problem -- the problem of industry capture of regulatory agencies through the use of their financial and political resources. The industry wants to have the freedom to organize operations as they see fit; and their first goal is to maintain and increase profits. The public needs regulatory agencies that depend on neutral expert assessment and rule-setting that protects the safety of the families who are affected by the industry; and yet -- as Charles Perrow argued in "Cracks in the Regulatory State", all too often the regulatory process defers to the business interests of the industry (link). He writes:
Almost every major industrial accident in recent times has involved either regulatory failure or the deregulation demanded by business and industry. For more examples, see Perrow (2011). It is hard to make the case that the industries involved have failed to innovate because of federal regulation; in particular, I know of no innovations in the safety area that were stifled by regulation. Instead, we have a deregulated state and deregulated capitalism, and rising environmental problems accompanied by growing income and wealth inequality. (210).
Blocked crossings are an inconvenience of everyday life for many people. But they can also lead to life-threatening situations when ambulances and fire vehicles cannot gain access to scenes of emergency. Leaving the problem of blocked crossings to the railroad companies -- rather than a sensible set of FRA rules and penalties -- is surely a prescription for a worsening problem over time. As Willie Lake, the mayor of York, put the point in the New York Times article: "They have no incentive" to make substantial changes in their operations to substantially improve the blocked-crossing problem. The FRA needs to provide clear and sensible regulations that give the companies the incentives needed to address the problem.
(The Washington Post ran an extensive story in May on blocked rail crossings, with examples from Leggett, Texas; link. The National Academy of Science is conducting a study of the safety implications of freight trains longer than 7,500 feet (link).)