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Innovation Is Working on the Railroad

We do a lot of work here at IPI on the importance of innovation and technology. But when you think about innovation and technology, odds are you don’t think about . . . freight rail. 

But it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that innovation through technology is happening in every sector of industry, including the freight rail industry. 

Innovation makes companies and industries faster, more efficient, safer, and thus more productive. And with all the emphasis on our supply chain difficulties right now, who wouldn’t want the freight rail industry to be as productive as possible? 

In fact, the U.S. government recently appropriated $1.2 trillion dollars to repair, improve and modernize our supposedly “crumbling” infrastructure. So between this huge commitment of taxpayer funds and our renewed awareness of the importance of our supply chains, shouldn’t the government be encouraging innovation and efficiency in our freight rail system? 

You would think so, but you would be wrong. The Federal Railroad Administration (you knew there was a Federal Railroad Administration, didn’t you?) is inexplicably opposing rail innovation and modernization on several fronts. 

A new safety technology that inspects railroad track can detect defects and geometry problems that the human eye can’t detect. This technology has been used successfully by almost all of the major freight rail companies, but recently the FRA has begun denying permits to continue the technology or to deploy it on new routes. 

What’s changed? Well, the opposition is a labor union—the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way—and the Biden administration is blatantly putting the demands of labor unions ahead of innovation, technology, efficiency and productivity. 

And in an era when self-driving cars and trucks are being successfully tested on roads and highways across America, the FRA is also insisting on minimum crew sizes that are no longer necessary given modern control technology and ongoing innovation. Again, this is little more than a union protection policy, and it cuts directly against productivity and efficiency gains from innovation. 

Innovation has allowed the freight rail industry to successfully reduce crew sizes for decades, and without making trains any less safe. Nonetheless, the federal government stands opposed to allowing our critical rail infrastructure to implement proven technologies that make them more efficient and productive. 

“It’s 2022. Why don’t we have flying cars and jetpacks?” At least one reason may be that government regulators prize protecting their political constituencies above realizing all the benefits and gains to consumers that result from encouraging and implementing technology and innovation.