Come January, Some Congressional Changes: Once Again, Our Work is Cut Out for Us

Written by Chuck Baker, President, ASLRRA
ASLRRA President Chuck Baker

ASLRRA President Chuck Baker

ASLRRA PERSPECTIVE, RAILWAY AGE DECEMBER 2022 ISSUE: Apart from the Georgia Senate runoff and a few uncalled races, the midterm election is finally over.

As of this writing, there will be at least 82 new Members of Congress taking office in January, and in the case of the newly Republican-controlled House of Representatives, a whole new set of Committee and Subcommittee Chairmen. As is always the case, there is much work to be done helping newcomers understand what we do, how we do it, and how their policy decisions impact the railroad network for good or ill. 

For short line railroads, this is a particularly daunting task because we are a small and relatively hidden part of the national freight transportation network. If we were to ask each new Member of Congress why the 1980 Staggers Rail Act was so important to saving light density rail lines in rural America, probably all 82 would ask, “What’s Staggers?” This is not to complain that they are ill-informed but to acknowledge that we have our work cut out for us.

We have a great story to tell, and we will begin telling it as soon as the new Members arrive in January. It is a story about entrepreneurs preserving 50,000 miles of rail lines, most of which was headed for abandonment; about keeping rural and small-town shippers connected to the national railroad network; about investing a huge portion of our revenue to improve the efficiency and safety of aging railroad infrastructure; and about the environmental benefits of fuel-efficient trains that take three to four trucks per railcar off the highway. 

We have a lot to talk about, and much of it is very positive.

If we were to ask each new Member of Congress why the 1980 Staggers Rail Act was so important to saving light density rail lines in rural America, probably all 82 would ask, “What’s Staggers?” This is not to complain that they are ill-informed but to acknowledge that we have our work cut out for us.

We always prefer to talk about the ways smart government policy can help short lines do more and do better, and over the years there are many examples of such policies. The aforementioned Staggers Rail Act literally saved the national railroad industry from bankruptcy. The Short Line “45G” Rehabilitation Tax Credit significantly increased capital investment in the most at-risk rail infrastructure. And short line eligibility for funding under the expanded CRISI program is making the most expensive projects, such as bridge and rail and locomotive replacements, more economically feasible. 

Regretfully, but inevitably, there are some government policies that are not so wise and that can do great harm to our industry. Two of those are rulemakings that are unfortunately now in play and at the top of our mind. 

The first is the FRA’s continuing effort to mandate two-person train crews. This issue is completely untethered to any existing railroad safety data. It ignores decades of safe and successful use of one-person crews at some short line railroads and by thousands of Amtrak and commuter passenger trains carrying hundreds of thousands of passengers every day, not to mention experience in much of the rest of the world. Most important from the short line perspective, it imposes artificial costs on operating budgets, which means less spending on technology and infrastructure improvements that, along with safety culture, are the real drivers of improved railroad safety. 

The second is the California Air Resources Board’s (CARB) proposed rulemaking that would impose immediate and ruinously large financial charges on locomotives operating in California based on the locomotive’s emission tier. The financial charges are deposited in a so-called “spending account,” the spending of which is dictated by the government.

The rulemaking further proposes to eventually ban the operation of federally certified locomotives that comply with all federal requirements, but that have been in operation for more than 23 years. 

There are 27 Class III short line railroads operating in California, all of them small businesses by any measure. The average annual revenue of Class III railroads is $4.7 million. Based on information provided by CARB in the proposed rules, the expected annual payment into a typical short line’s spending account could amount to as much as $1.6 million per year. As Ken Beard, President of the California Short Line Railroad Association, puts it, “that math is a recipe for going out of business.” 

It is well established that railroads are the safest, most fuel efficient and environmentally friendly form of transportation. Indeed, the fastest way nationally for a company to drop their carbon footprint in logistics is to shift from truck to rail—by many estimates it results in an immediate 75% drop in greenhouse gas emissions. Driving a railroad out of business forces its shippers to shift from rail to truck, precisely the wrong way to achieve goals related to improved air quality and saving lives. An increase in trucks will result in more fatalities and injuries, more congestion on the roads, more burden on the taxpayer to pay for road damage, and more microplastics from shredded truck tires in the environment and water supply.

Our Congressional engagement begins in earnest in January and will crest in the spring (date coming soon!) with our annual Railroad Day on the Hill, where more than 400 railroad industry representatives will participate in more than 350 Congressional meetings in a single day. This has been a tremendously successful communications event where railroaders probably do the most good in the shortest period of time. Happily, after two years of virtual Railroad Day meetings, we expect to finally be back to an in-person event. I hope railroaders across the country will make every effort to attend.

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