It’s been 150 years since railroads came to Wyoming. They built the state, with towns like Cheyenne, Rawlins and Evanston springing up at important points along the great arteries of transcontinental commerce. Locally, they’ve proven to be the state’s lifeblood, granting miners and ranchers alike access to distant markets without the need for the public to maintain thousands of miles of right of ways through winter storms, spring floods and summer heat.
Access to privately financed freight infrastructure isn’t a given; other places must rely on taxpayers to build the roads and highways we need to get raw resources to market. In other words, people can only access this non-taxpayer-funded infrastructure when someone can earn enough of a profit on a particular strip of right of way to pay for any associated maintenance and management costs.
Unfortunately, a law proposed by Rep. Stan Blake, D-Green River, threatens to upset the delicate infrastructure funding balance that the state’s policymakers work hard to maintain. At issue is whether Wyoming will set state-level rules that govern how freight locomotives must be staffed. The new bill would require all freight locomotives to operate with at least two crew members on board. A similar effort last year saw the proposal fail in the state Senate’s Transportation Committee after passing the House.
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Wyoming does not currently regulate staffing levels on freight trains, leaving railroads and their labor unions to work out the matter through mechanisms in established federal law. There is no safety reason for setting minimum railroad staffing requirements, as the Federal Railroad Administration made clear when it preempted similar laws last year. Regrettably, FRA’s ruling did not affirmatively stop states from passing laws that would ground minimum staffing rules in naked economic protectionism.
Railroad staffing has long been a controversial issue that has invited politicians to intervene. Railroad workers are well-compensated, and many love their jobs. But these jobs depend on the health of the industry, and the decline of Wyoming coal shipments has made that reality abundantly clear for some unfortunate workers.
Protectionist laws that increase railroad operating costs, like the one Rep. Blake proposes, would only add fuel to this fire, potentially jeopardizing far more in upstream economic benefits than they can hope to preserve. Worse still, laws that wade into labor for one particular mode of transportation threaten to harm others — in this case, the proposal could easily divert loads from railroads maintained with private capital to state highways, where taxpayers are on the hook for maintenance and congestion relief. In a state dependent on resource exports, the idea of finding this money in the state budget as coal revenues continue plummeting should give forward-looking Wyoming politicians pause.
Contrast the proposed crew-size rule with what’s going on with other aspects of railroad regulation in Wyoming. Last year, Union Pacific conducted a test of pioneering track inspection technology under an FRA waiver on its “coal loop” in 2019. Current law says that most tracks must be inspected by workers using a “stop and verify” method that requires shutting down the track for periodic inspection. Under the waiver, UP was able to conduct the nation’s first pilot of “continuous track inspection” technology that allowed the railroad to check track conditions with trains traveling at standard speeds. By not having to shut down segments of track for inspection, continuous track inspection technology stands to allow track inspections to happen far more frequently than they do today. The day the test ended, the FRA announced new rule-making that stands to expand continuous track-testing nationwide in the near future.
Wyoming could play a similar role as a leader in innovation for freight rail train staffing. As a large, low-population, resource-rich state, Wyoming will likely rely on railroads as a crucial part of its freight network for decades to come — should labor costs prove economical enough. Alternatively, lawmakers could follow Rep. Blake’s recommendation and set a protectionist floor on railway labor costs, which may preserve a few jobs in the near future but will likely stunt rail innovation without improving safety.
Nick Zaiac is a resident fellow in transportation and infrastructure at the R Street Institute.
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