WASHINGTON — President-elect Joe Biden may be known as “Amtrak Joe,” but his administration is expected to have an impact on freight railroading, too.
During his campaign for the White House, Biden pledged to require two-person crews on freight trains.
Rail labor unions have sought a two-person crew regulation as Class I railroads have implemented positive train control and are interested in negotiating use of one-person crews. Some Class I railroads also say they eventually want to explore autonomous operation, as mining company Rio Tinto does with ore trains in Australia.
Unions have been successful in getting two-person crew legislation passed in several states. But courts have generally held that federal law preempts state attempts to regulate crew size.
The Federal Railroad Administration has said there is no need for a federal crew size regulation, citing the lack of data showing that operations with two people in the locomotive are any safer than those with one.
On trade, Biden is likely to abandon the Trump administration’s broad use of tariffs. Business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have opposed the tariffs and the economic disruption that they have caused.
China and other trading partners have responded with their own tariffs on American goods, moves that have particularly hurt farmers and dragged down rail-hauled shipments of grain, soybeans, and other agricultural products to ports.
Railroads, noting that trade is related to more than 40% of all rail shipments, have supported free and fair trade agreements.
“International trade, facilitated largely through free trade agreements, has benefited the U.S. economy. When U.S. companies — such as freight rail customers — have access to global markets, businesses and customers, Americans gain access to a greater variety of goods at a lower cost,” the Association of American Railroads has said. “Federal policymakers should be looking at ways to open more markets for trade, not considering policies to unnecessarily stop sustained growth.”
Biden is not expected to turn down the heat on China, however, and may continue the Trump administration’s hard line on Beijing by enlisting the support of allies in Europe and Asia to coordinate trade policy.
Biden has said the U.S. will rejoin the Paris climate accord and set ambitious targets to reduce the nation’s emissions of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. For the rail industry, this can be a mixed bag.
Railroads have been touting the environmental benefits of shipping by rail, and shippers have been converting some freight from the highway to rail as one way to reduce their carbon footprints.
But it’s possible that the Biden administration’s efforts to encourage cleaner forms of energy may negatively impact energy-related rail shipments, including utility coal as well as the sand and other supplies necessary for fracking for oil and gas production. There’s also the potential for a repeal of the new regulations that would permit liquified natural gas to be shipped via rail.
The Biden administration may also put roadblocks in front of pipeline construction and expansion projects, which could help boost railroads’ crude by rail traffic.
Rail industry trade groups congratulated Biden.
“On behalf of the entire industry, congratulations to President-elect Biden on his victory,” AAR CEO Ian Jefferies said in a statement. “The president-elect is no stranger to America’s railroads, and the freight rail industry looks forward to working with his new administration to advance our shared goals including getting Americans back to work, strengthening the economy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The challenges his new administration and our nation face are great, but the freight railroads want to be — and must be — part of the solution.”
The American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association expressed similar sentiments.
“We welcome the opportunity to work with a Biden-led administration and Congress to ensure that the U.S. freight rail system remains the envy of the world, providing safe, affordable, environmentally-friendly service that connects small town and rural America to U.S. and overseas markets,” said ASLRRA President Chuck Baker. “Whether it is through the Short Line Railroad Investment Tax Credit that aids all Class II and III railroads in capital upgrades, federal discretionary grant programs such as the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure Safety Improvements Act, and safety initiatives such as the Short Line Safety Institute, the ASLRRA and our nearly 1,000 railroad and supplier members look forward to collaborating on transportation initiatives that drive our industry forward.”