Good Hits or Bad Hits? The Determination is Ours

Written by Chuck Baker, President, ASLRRA

ASLRRA PERSPECTIOVE, RAILWAY AGE JUNE 2023 ISSUE: “And the hits just keep on coming” was a phrase popularized by 1960s radio announcers to boast that their radio station was going to play one beloved record after another. The 1992 movie “A Few Good Men” popularized a wholly different meaning of the same phrase when Tom Cruise (Lt. Daniel Kaffee) who, at the end of a litany of contentious disagreements with his unwanted co-counsel Demi Moore (Lt. Cmdr. Joanne Galloway), utters those words in a sarcastic response to her assertion that, like it or not, she is coming to Cuba with him for his meeting with Jack Nicholson (Colonel Nathan Jessup).

For the past few months, the railroad industry has had to live with the Tom Cruise version of that phrase.

In the aftermath of the East Palestine train accident, six bills ostensibly related to rail safety are being considered by Congress. There are indeed some provisions in these bills that address safety issues relevant to that accident (defect detectors for example). But there is much that has nothing to do with safety and some that are truly counterproductive—crew size mandates being the most glaring.

The bill by Senators Brown and Vance that was considered by the Senate Commerce Committee in May, the Rail Safety Act, is the bill that has received the most attention. There have been some significant changes and improvements to the bill since introduction: After a lengthy collective effort, the committee leadership was willing to work with us in good faith to remove Class II and III railroads from prescriptive legislative text that would have implemented rules that are not relevant for short lines and impractical for them to implement, including proposed new rules on defect detectors, pre-departure car inspections, locomotive inspections and crew size.

That said, due to the interconnected nature of the U.S. freight rail system, short lines are still apprehensive these new rules would cause significant disruptions for our Class I partners without a significant attendant safety benefit. And if it’s bad for our partners, then it’s bad for us and our shared customers. Additionally, since the legislative text doesn’t prohibit USDOT from expanding the rules beyond it, we remain concerned that short lines would end up being pulled into the rules, regardless of legislative intent.

The legislation also has not incorporated measures that we’ve stated would actually improve short line safety, such as focusing CRISI on freight rail safety projects and increasing support for the Short Line Safety Institute.

On the heels of the Senate Commerce Committee’s markup, the House T&I Committee approved a group of about 20 “supply chain” bills, two of which would increase truck size and weights if they were to make it into public law. The first would establish a five year “pilot program,” with one five-year renewal option, in which an unlimited number of states could opt to increase the weight of a commercial motor vehicle operating on an interstate highway from the current 80,000 pounds to 91,000 pounds.

This is not a “pilot project,” but a de facto increase in national truck weight policy. Ten years spans the average life cycle of two full surface transportation reauthorization bills.

The second bill would increase the permissible weight of an auto transporter from 80,000 pounds by 10% to 88,000 pounds. Changing truck size and weight limits in a piecemeal fashion based on type of truck or commodity or season or specific road or whatever is a slippery slope that never ends.

Short lines teamed up with a broad set of partners, including independent truckers, safety advocates, law enforcement, local government groups and of course the larger railroads to oppose this idea, but we were not successful—yet! We indeed lost this battle, but we intend to win the war.

When short lines struggle to get enough business to thrive, they double down on what they do best. They hustle, scrap and fight for every carload and bend over backwards to provide world class service to their customers. And we’ll do the same thing on legislation—we’ll double down on telling our unique short line story, explain our focus on safety and safety culture, tell our friends in Congress about the devastating impacts that heavier trucks would have, and go make new friends too.

On May 17 in the midst of all this activity, more than 150 short line representatives met in person with 176 congressional offices in D.C. This event launched the newly minted Short Line Railroad Advocacy Day where Class II and III railroads, suppliers and supporting associations met personally to describe how Congressional actions impact our industry’s business and our ability to serve our shippers who depend on that service for the success of their business. The timing was fortuitous, as it gave short lines an opportunity to get up close and personal with their elected officials at a key moment, and that is the most effective kind of communication we can have with Congress.

We received a lot of great feedback from these meetings, both from the railroaders that participated and from Capitol Hill offices. And we’ll need to do a lot more going forward—both in D.C. and at home. If you’re reading this and have a railroad, now is a great moment to get to work on inviting an elected official to come tour your railroad and hear your story.

You can rest assured that the hits will keep coming—it’ll be up to us to determine whether those are the good hits or the bad hits. 

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