Since their inception, railroads have paved the way for American industrialization, safely transporting freight across the country with an efficiency and speed never before imagined possible. The American rail network has driven some of our most consequential economic developments, using that innovation to improve millions of lives. Now, groundbreaking advances in automation and analytics are opening yet another exciting frontier for rail—one that, with the right approach from D.C. policymakers, and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in particular, can once again redefine the world of transportation.
To craft a technology-friendly regulatory strategy, FRA need simply look to its peer agencies in the automotive sector. The recent flurry of innovation in autonomous vehicle technology is progressing thanks in large part to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) “light touch” regulatory approach toward testing and deploying these new technologies. Despite the fact that all real-world testing carries some initial risk, DOT has not allowed misconceptions to stand in the way of progress and the long-term safety benefits of autonomous vehicles. The same approach that is working there will work for rail as well.
While rare, one-third of train accidents are caused by human error, many of which will be eliminated by integrating automated processes into rail operations. Further, the deployment of autonomous technology is easier in the rail industry given that railroads operate on separate fixed tracks. In a world where DOT has vigorously supported the automation of millions of interacting cars and trucks, FRA’s support for similar—and simpler—opportunities to automate many different aspects of rail operations is an attractive and less controversial way to facilitate analogous rail-safety benefits.
Encouragingly, FRA made progress last April when it issued a request for information on automation in the rail industry. In response, Norfolk Southern provided substantive insights into the many technologies available to automate various aspects of our network—from locomotives and dispatch, to yard operations and inspections. We look forward to the next steps and urge FRA to promote the safety benefits of such technologies by issuing guidance that encourages railroads and third-party technology vendors to pursue innovation.
At Norfolk Southern, we are firmly committed to developing high-tech tools that will undeniably improve the safety and efficiency of our operations. Indeed, automated and predictive technologies can help open a new world of operational improvements, and we are working hard every day to realize these benefits and reimagine a safer, more reliable future for freight transportation. Yet we simply cannot unlock the full potential of this new technology without a 21st century regulatory environment that facilitates private innovation.
Just as it has throughout our country’s history, the rail industry is leveraging technology to surge towards transportation’s new technological horizon. By following the lead of other DOT agencies and regulating in a flexible, outcome-based manner, FRA can accelerate this technological progress, helping to dynamically transform the freight-rail industry and creating a safer system and a more efficient transportation network for 21st century manufacturers