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Another Voice: Policymakers should enable, not hinder, freight rail

By Peter Goelz

Sen. Charles Schumer quipped on a 2016 visit to New York Air Brake – a Watertown-based supplier to the railroad industry – that the operation is “one of the most impressive” plants in the land and that its presence “is a blessing.”

The company’s CEO rightly pointed out, “as demand for freight rail increases … so does the need for infrastructure, technology and equipment provided by companies like New York Air Brake.” In the Empire State, home to 39 freight railroads (fourth most in the nation) and major freight hubs like Buffalo, this is especially true.

Yet listen to select rhetoric among certain policymakers in Washington or review recent regulatory proposals and you will probably not grasp that the industry is safe and a major economic engine. Several government regulations under current consideration threaten the health of the freight rail industry and could make it more difficult for shippers across the state to move their products to customers.

Given its significance to the region’s economy, policymakers must facilitate, not needlessly hinder, rail transportation.

Consider that on the mainline rail network, derailments are down 25 percent compared with 2010. Employee injuries have decreased 48 percent in the last 15 years while the overall train accident rate is 39 percent less today than in 2000.

But several recent policy proposals seem to disregard facts and perhaps mask broader political agendas.

For instance, the Federal Railroad Administration continues to advance a proposal that dictates crew size operations even though evidence points toward single-man crews being safer. The costly supposed redundancy in fact offers no greater level of safety at a much greater cost. At best the proposal needs further study before being arbitrarily imposed.

The Surface Transportation Board has also recently proposed a number of new regulations that would threaten the success of the industry, including a rule that would require railroads to give competitors access to their rail lines. This “forced access” rule would disrupt the efficient flow of cargo that makes freight railroads such a vital piece of our economy.

While no one is alleging that any one single policy proposal will cripple the industry, thereby diminishing the positive economic impact it has on the Buffalo area, the aggregate of regulations could have a real dampening effect in the future. In these less-than-ideal economic times, why should we ignore the safety record of railroads and unnecessarily disrupt an economic engine like freight rail?

Let data drive safety policies, not politics – and let all New Yorkers reap the economic benefits.

Peter Goelz served as managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board from 1995 to 2000.

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