Guest Columnist

Iowa doesn't need to be told how to operate our railroads

Warren Fisk, Oelwein City Council 2019
Warren Fisk, Oelwein City Council 2019

Railroads are not new to Iowa. They arrived in the mid-nineteenth century, decades before the end of the Civil War, and are still an integral part of our state and its heritage. Today, Iowa’s 16 freight railroads, which cover more than 3,800 miles of track and transport more than 300 million tons of freight annually, have an enormous impact on the state’s economy.

Rail connections are crucial for Iowa’s growing economy, particularly our agriculture, renewable fuels and manufacturing industries. Not to mention the 3,100 Iowans who are currently employed by the freight rail industry. This interconnected relationship between Iowa’s businesses and its railroads must be protected.

Unfortunately, the Safe Freight Act, which was introduced in both chambers of Congress earlier this year would put that important relationship in jeopardy by imposing costly government-mandated regulations regarding train crew size staffing.

Iowa’s congressional delegation should strongly oppose this proposed legislation, which would undercut the rail industry’s ability to innovate its technology and continue benefiting the state’s economy.

While we’ve seen this proposed legislation before, career professionals are confident that its unnecessary and counterproductive. Earlier this year, for example, the Federal Rail Administration (FRA), the freight rail industry’s top regulator in the federal government, reversed a proposed rule similar to the current bill. That decision was based on hard data that showed that crew staffing-size regulation neither makes freight rail safer nor more efficient. In fact, the FRA declared that there have been no previous rail accidents involving one-person crews that would have been avoided by the presence of a two-person crew.

In its decision, the FRA unequivocally stated, “In withdrawing the (notice of proposed rulemaking), FRA is providing notice of its affirmative decision that no regulation of train crew staffing is necessary or appropriate for railroad operations to be conducted safely at this time.” Why, then, are lawmakers in Washington, D.C. seeking to impose regulations that would directly harm our state economy?

Obstructing railroads with unnecessary bureaucracy would slump businesses and the overall economy in Iowa, which is one of America’s most important agricultural and manufacturing states. We’re one of the nation’s leaders in production of livestock, crops, and ethanol byproducts as well as mined limestone. Iowa’s farmers and producers rely on railroads for the transportation, distribution, and sales of these commodities and more.

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Crew size mandates hearken back to an era when command and control government regulations nearly bankrupted railroading. That’s because railroads need to earn enough revenue to constantly maintain and upgrade their infrastructure. In today’s competitive transportation landscape, railroads should be allowed to innovate like other modes — this includes implementing technologies to make railroad operations safer and more prosperous for businesses in Iowa. These investments include Positive Train Control technology, which is an advanced system designed to automatically stop a train before deadly accidents occur.

Like any other industry in our state, Iowa’s freight rail industry must be allowed the economic and regulatory freedom to invest in itself and grow. Lawmakers should support legislation that improves business conditions in our state and stand against regulations that will hurt Iowans and work against their economic interests.

Warren Fisk represents District 2 on the Oelwein City Council.

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