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Viewpoint: Why is rail being left out of regulatory discussions?

Maritime and trucking sectors get plenty of attention, but rail is apparently an afterthought

This commentary was written by professional locomotive engineers Jason Doering and Matt Parker. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FreightWaves or its affiliates.

By Jason Doering and Matt Parker

Two recent articles published by FreightWaves captured our attention. These two articles detailed actions proposed by both Congress and federal regulatory agencies to address safety and service concerns in the maritime and trucking sectors, some of which are affecting the global supply chain.

One article spoke of pending actions by both Congress and the Federal Maritime Administration to rein in discriminatory practices by overseas ocean carriers that, to the detriment of the supply chain, prioritize profits over service and contract obligations.

As we read reports about these measures, we wondered — what about rail?

Many of the same problems exist for customers of the Class I railroads; for evidence, one need look no further than the two days of testimony before the Surface Transportation Board in May 2019 regarding the matter of Ex Parte No. 754. That hearing was a cavalcade of stories from rail shippers detailing increased charges amid substantially degrading service due to the combined effects of a slashed workforce and precision scheduled railroading.

This situation has not improved. Rather, in many ways, it has worsened. We hope that the current chairman of the STB, Martin J. Oberman, takes this degradation of service into account and applies the same level of urgency when examining service practices the Class I railroads have adopted as has the Federal Maritime Administration in addressing similar issues with ocean carriers.

The other article read like a wish list of enhanced regulations from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and laws from Congress to further promote safety in the trucking industry. We find this intriguing in that similar action by the Federal Railroad Administration and Congress to address such matters in the rail industry has not yet occurred, even after being mandated for almost 15 years. 

When such imposition of regulations and laws affecting the nation’s rail carriers is proposed, we see a pattern where industry executives complain about speculative detrimental effects on carrier profitability, and the responsible agencies and lawmakers immediately back away rather than persist, kicking the can into the indeterminate future.

Fiscally, by comparison, the story in the trucking industry is that most major carriers are struggling to reduce their operating ratios, which typically run in the high 80s to low 90s. Meanwhile, most Class I rail carriers have lowered their operating ratios below 60 and are boasting of record profits.

Why such reluctance to take federal action addressing matters of concern in the rail industry, particularly regarding safety? Do federal policymakers not understand the premise we have pushed here in Nevada, which is that the public bears a substantial risk as the result of the movement of certain freight by rail?

Another way we have expressed this to policymakers is that, while trains don’t fall out of the sky, resulting in a near-certain loss of life, trains do occasionally send carloads of really nasty stuff rocketing into adjacent areas when things go very wrong. 

Lac-Megantic, Casselton, Graettinger, Tempe — the list goes on of communities that have experienced firsthand the devastation that can result from a railroad accident. We have been fortunate to avoid a major catastrophe with many lives lost in the U.S. as trains have grown to excessive lengths, a result of PSR’s profits-before-service focus.

While it is evident federal regulatory agencies and lawmakers appear to be taking a proactive stance with regard to addressing service and safety issues in the maritime and motor carrier sectors by examining enhanced regulation, we are again left to pose a question.

Why does the rail industry, where so many similar problems exist in serving customers and making the supply chain run smoothly, appear to be left out of these discussions?

Perhaps it’s time for those reading this to begin pressing their elected federal representatives for an answer to this question.

About the authors

Jason Doering is a professional locomotive engineer who serves as chairman and director of the Nevada State Legislative Board for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers-Transportation Division.

Matt Parker is a professional locomotive engineer who serves as chairman of the Nevada State Legislative Board for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.


  1. The easy AND best answer is MONEY!

    The head honcho of Berkshire Hathaway which owns BNSF is a democrat and who is in power right now?

    In the case of BNSF, they give out plenty of money on both sides. Political hacks will NOT bite the hands that feed them.

    I have spoken to my Congressional Rep Liz Cheney about this more then once and her response has always been it is not the job of Congress to tell the railroads how to operate.

    Until there is a major accident that cannot be blamed by the NTSB on crew operations themselves, things will not change. Hell the FRA office on the operations side in Montana has at least two failed employees from a Class One who have caught falsely writing up carriers, but the are still working there. They are well known to ALWAYS blame crew members too for any infractions that may occur.

    The fines that the FRA impose on any infraction are like pennies to a carrier. Start throwing the some CEOs in jail and just maybe things might change.

    In relation to track conditions, there needs a rule to be put in place yesterday that no speed restriction can last more then 30 days on any main line. It also needs to a rule that the carriers just cannot lower timetable speeds either to get around it.

  2. Couldn’t agree more. Railroad accidents definitely have the POTENTIAL for devastation, and we’ve been rather lucky that there hasn’t been more REAL devastation. But there is a REAL rail safety problem that dwarfs railroad accidents. According to the FRA (, there have been 68 deaths in the US due to train accidents from 2011-2020. Over that same time period, there has been more than 6800 deaths due to trespassing and suicide. It is not easy to solve the trespassing and suicide issue, but it is remarkable how little attention it gets from anyone, including the FRA, which purportedly exists exclusively for safety. While you are writing your legislative representatives, please also ask them if they are even aware of the trespassing and suicide problem. (Note to people checking my numbers- FRA does not consider a suicide death to be a fatality, so do not use “total fatalities” in their reports. To find the super-secret suicide numbers, you have to query 4.11 on the page referenced above. You must add the super-secret suicide numbers to the published total to get a real total. When FRA says “total”, they do not mean “all”.)

Contributed Content

Note: FreightWaves occasionally publishes commentary from industry sources with expertise, information and opinion on current transportation topics. The opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and not necessarily those of FreightWaves. Submissions to FreightWaves are subject to editing.