Priorities & Concerns
Rail Upgrades for Large-Capacity Railcars
New Program Addresses Major Need in MA Rail Shipping
The Transportation Bond Bill enacted during the 2019-2020 session of the Massachusetts Legislature authorized the spending of up to $20 million dollars over the next five years on new public-private partnerships to improve the weight-carrying capacity of freight rail lines. Now, the Massachusetts Railroad Association is working to persuade policy makers in Washington and members of the U.S. Congress to approve federal spending on this important initiative.
These capacity upgrades, which would facilitate travel by railcars weighing up to 286,000 pounds each, can best be achieved by pairing federal dollars with state dollars, and by matching those resources with significant investments by private railroads.
Among the many benefits of 286,000-pound rail are greater efficiencies in rail operations, better integration of the Massachusetts freight rail network with those of neighboring states, and less reliance on heavy trucking, enhancing air quality and the durability of our roads, highways and bridges.
Although large parts of our freight rail network have the capacity for cars weighing up to 286,000 pounds, many gaps exist where tracks allow only for the passage of lighter cars -- those weighing no more than 263,000 pounds.
The current State Rail Plan of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation identifies those gaps and emphasizes the large, potential benefits of filling them by conversions to 286,000-pound capacity rail. For example, because more cars are needed to carry the same amount of freight on tracks limited to 263,000-pound cars, the cost of those shipments is about 15 percent higher than it would be if that freight were transported on 286,000-pound capacity rails. This puts Massachusetts freight railroads at a competitive disadvantage. It also induces businesses to ship goods and materials by trucks, which use much more diesel fuel per-mile/per-ton than railroads and produce comparatively more emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG).
Eliminating lower-weight capacity gaps in our freight rail network aligns perfectly with two major public policy objectives of the Commonwealth: reducing GHG to halt and reverse the multiple ill-effects of climate change and maintaining the strength and competitiveness of our economy.
Mandates on Train Crew Sizes
The MRA opposes SB2270, 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 SB2270 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.”
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 HB852, 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.
HB852, 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:
SB1161, 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.
HB3443, An Act Establishing School Zones for Locomotives
SB2271, 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.