Op-Eds

President Abraham Lincoln understood that a dynamic and efficient transportation system is critical to the well-being of America. As a former railroad attorney, Lincoln knew a transcontinental railroad would open trade with the Far East and support communities throughout the region. Most importantly, railroad transportation would provide dependable and safe passageways for settlers on the western frontier. The First Transcontinental Railroad united our country and planted the seeds of economic, social and technological progress for our nation to thrive in its future. And it all began in Omaha.

Today, we have the same opportunities to unleash the potential of America’s transportation system. However, outdated and restrictive rulemaking processes are hindering investments in safe, efficient railroads for passengers and workers. As chairman of the Senate’s Surface Transportation Subcommittee, I’m always looking for ways our country can correct this course.

That’s why I’ve introduced the Railroad Advancement of Innovation and Leadership with Safety (RAILS) Act to restore transparency and accountability to the regulatory process.

In order to increase transparency in the federal bureaucracy, the RAILS Act will require the Federal Railroad Administration to publicize all the information used to develop its proposed regulations when the regulation is published. The general public, including rail workers, could then examine data behind exactly why the FRA is taking action.

The RAILS Act also would provide the public and rail workers with more opportunities to participate in the regulatory process. It would require FRA to ask for public comments when it starts to develop a significant regulation. Making this change better positions the agency to receive ideas from the workers on the ground, rather than just take directives from bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. There are prudent, public safety-related exceptions. For example, the agency may issue rules quickly to address unsafe conditions, practices or imminent hazards.

Justification for any major federal rule change should always be required and the quality of supporting data on which any alterations are based is paramount. The RAILS Act would further require FRA to base its rule determinations on the “best reasonably obtainable” data. Only data that is up to date, relevant and based on validated models and peer-reviewed research should drive change.

The safety of rail operations is too important to rely on faulty data. By improving the data quality underlying FRA’s regulations, we can help yield the best results.

Additionally, to promote innovative ways to improve safety the RAILS Act would build on current frameworks for the agency to authorize and evaluate pilot programs. Participants in these programs would be authorized to test alternative technologies with the goal of advancing safety and productivity throughout the industry.

Make no mistake, this is not a blank check to railroads. Far from it. Participants in the pilot program would be required to demonstrate that their technologies are in the public interest, could meet or exceed the current safety levels and include a framework for evaluation. This arrangement is not new to FRA or the railroad industry. As an additional reinforcement, the Secretary of Transportation would need to approve participants and greenlight their process for evaluating project safety.

Most importantly, my bill will ensure rail safety regulations are effective. The FRA would be required to review regulations every five years to verify they are not obsolete or outdated. The agency would need to consider performance based standards and if FRA doesn’t adopt those standards, they would need to explain why. With these provisions, FRA would have to justify its rules and decisions to rail workers, the American public and Congress.

The RAILS Act will build a regulatory process at the FRA that provides transparency and implements safer, more effective regulations for railroads in Nebraska and across our country.