Industry Issues in the Commonwealth

Railroad Safety is an Industry Priority

The MRA and its member railroads take issues of safety very seriously, a fact borne out by our excellent safety records: rail is by far the safest mode of surface transportation.  Railroads in the United States have lower employee injury rates than the majority of other major industries, including trucking, airline transportation, manufacturing, construction and agriculture. Accident rates, including train derailments, collisions and those caused by defective tracks were the lowest ever in 2016.

As an industry, railroads are constantly investing in training, technology, equipment and infrastructure to increase the safety of their operations. New technologies being employed now include detectors along tracks that identify defects in rail cars and specialized vehicles that identify defects in tracks and the ground underneath tracks. Nearly every aspect of rail operations is subject to oversight by the Federal Railroad Administration. Railroads are also subject to safety oversight the Department of Homeland Security, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. 


Members of MRA are committed to working with the proper authorities and regulators to ensure appropriate measures and policies are in place for the safe transport of all types of freight along the rail in Massachusetts. Not only do these safeguards protect public safety, but also the employees of each railroad as well. 

Crew Size Regulations

Currently the Federal Railroad Administration does not have regulations requiring a minimum number of employees to operate a locomotive, but in recent years attempts have been made to pass legislation in Massachusetts to mandate railroads use two-person crews on freight railroads. Currently S.1953, An Act Relative to 2-Person Train Crew Size, is before the Joint Committee on Transportation. 


At this time, the vast majority of freight railroads in Massachusetts are using two-person crews. The number of employees on each train is usually governed by collective bargaining agreements with the labor organizations that represent engineers and conductors.  The only way to amend these binding agreements is through negotiations pursuant to the Railway Labor Act of 1926.

Currently the railroad industry is in the process of deploying federally mandated Positive Train Control (PTC). PTC is a highly advanced technology, which is designed to provide additional remote and continuous monitoring of crews to automatically override any human error in controlling train speed and movements and stop a train before certain types of accidents happen.  With PTC, other technological improvements and changes in operating procedures, railroads may at some point seek to use one-person crews where Positive Train Control is in use, as this monitoring will render redundant the additional person in multi-person train crews on affected routes. 

Priorities & Concerns



The MRA supports HB69, An Act Financing Improvements to Municipal Roads and Bridges, commonly referred to as the Chapter 90 Bill.  HB69 would allocate $200 million to MassDOT’s Rail and Transit Division for rail improvements across the state [Section 2B, Line Item 6622-1980].  Included here is the Industrial Rail Access Program (IRAP), created in 2012 to spur economic development through rail infrastructure investments.  This is the first time the legislature chose to fund the IRAP through a Chapter 90 Bill; previously, it funded the program solely through transportation bond bills.  HB69 has been enacted in both branches and is before the governor, who is expected to sign it into law.  More information on the IRAP may be found in a separate section of this handout devoted to this important program.

Industrial Rail Access Program Grants

Transportation Bond Bill

The MRA is keenly focused on developments in the Governor Baker administration and legislature pertaining to the next transportation bond bill.  It sees this bill as an appropriate and desirable vehicle to accomplish three objectives of overriding importance to the freight rail sector, the enterprises that depend upon our freight railroads, and the achievement of the environmental objectives espoused by the Green Communities Act of 2008 and the 2018 State Rail Plan. 

  • Doubling funds every year, for five years, for Industrial Rail Access Program grants, ($3 to $6 million);

  • Creating a segregated $20 million bonding authorization to establish a public/private partnership within MassDOT to ensure that the 286,000-pound mainline carrying weight track improvements envisaged by the Rail Plan are accomplished; and

  • Adding a rolling grant application feature to the Industrial Rail Access Program to ensure that projects are approved or denied within limited timeframes reflective of the relentless commercial pressures bearing upon businesses like freight railroads.

For months, the MRA has been advocating for these provisions in the next transportation bond bill and will continue to so advocate. The bill is expected to be filed sometime this Fall or early-Winter.

Mandates on Train Crew Sizes

The MRA opposes SB2039, An Act Relative to a 2-Person Train Crew Size, which would require all freight trains operating in the Commonwealth to have crews composed of at least two persons.  The MRA objects strenuously to SB2039 on several grounds.  There is no evidence, for example, that trains operated by two or more persons are safer.  Further, crew sizes have traditionally been determined during collective bargaining between railroads and unions.  Most saliently, states are pre-empted by federal law from issuing such mandates to freight railroads, which are at the heart of the nation’s system of interstate commerce.


In fact, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) issued a ruling on May 29, 2019, expressly stating that “no regulation of train crew staffing is necessary or appropriate for railroad operations to be conducted safely at this time.”  The agency said its action that day was intended “to preempt all state laws attempting to regulate train crew staffing in any manner.”  


The tenuous case for SB2039 has been wiped out.

Dedicated Freight Rail Administrator


The Commonwealth of Massachusetts should be applauded for its grand vision of how to improve the state’s rail network and thereby meet a host of objectives related to economic modernization and growth, alleviation of traffic congestion, and reduction of carbon emissions to combat global warming and warming’s potentially disastrous effects.  That vision is propounded in the 2018 State Rail Plan. 


One of the main ways the Governor Baker administration can ensure the fulfillment of its Rail Plan, the MRA asserts, is by creating the position of Freight Rail Administrator within MassDOT and giving that administrator the authority and resources to help bring about the improvements everyone agrees are needed, for the public good, in freight rail. 

The MRA intends no criticism of or disrespect for anyone serving at MassDOT, where freight rail is under the purview of a Rail Administrator responsible for both passenger and freight rail oversight.  Rather, we believe it is time for the Commonwealth to acknowledging the actual dimensions of managing 21st Century change and growth in this critical transportation sector by appointing and empowering a dedicated Freight Rail Administrator.

Limits on Locomotive Idling Times


The MRA opposes HB3554, An Act Establishing Time Limits for Idling Trains, which would prohibit any railroad locomotive from idling for more than 30 minutes.  The MRA is not unmindful of the occasional circumstances that may have led to this bill’s introduction, nor is it antagonistic to the goal of limiting air emissions.  Far from it.  Railroad operations, both freight and passenger, inevitably conflict sometimes with local concerns about emissions, traffic tie-ups, and noise. 


HB3554, however, exceeds the state’s authority to regulate railroad operations, which Congress and the courts have long recognized as more appropriately undertaken at the federal level.


The MRA takes the following positions on these bills:


In Favor

  • SB1046, An Act Relative to Employees of Private Railroads

    • Would include employees of private railroads in protections against assault and battery currently extended to employees of publicly owned railroads.


In Opposition

  • HB2999, An Act Establishing School Zones for Locomotives

  • HB3192, An Act Relative to the Obstruction of Public Ways by Railroad. 

    • Would increase fines upon railroads for obstructing a public way.

  • SB2038, An Act Relative to Hot Box Detectors

    • Would require installation of hotbox detectors, devices that detect axle and signal problems on passing trains, every 20 miles on any railroad line on which passenger trains operate.


The MRA opposes these bills because they propose actions violating federal prohibitions on the regulation of railroad operations by individual states.

If you have any questions regarding MRA's positions on these issues or any other issues,

please contact Jim Eisenberg at Preti Strategies.

© 2020 by Massachusetts Railroad Association