Positive Train Control: Good Idea, Terrible Implementation and Blame All The Way Around
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RL Banks & Associates

In an industry where safety rules are “written in blood,” it should be no surprise that safety is paramount. Railroad managements—mostly individuals who climbed the ranks and understand first-hand the ever-present dangers inherent in railroading—diligently focus on reducing accidents, and their impacts on employees, the general public and property.

However, the Federal Government determined that train control needed to improve significantly following the 2008 crash in Chatsworth, Calif., in which a Metrolink commuter train ploughed into a freight train because its contract operator engineer ignored a red signal while text messaging, resulting in the unnecessary loss of 25 lives and injury to 135 others. Another catalyst of the Act was the 2005 collision at Graniteville, SC, that resulted in the release of poisonous gas and nine deaths. Those incidents triggered a federal law—the “Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008”—which, among other things, required an unfunded mandate to install Positive Train Control (PTC) on any corridor that hosts passenger trains or transports hazardous materials (except on certain, smaller railroads under certain conditions).

Conceptually, PTC is a GPS-centric system that monitors and enforces train movement authority, creating a virtually signaled railroad on which it is nearly impossible for human error to result in train-to-train collisions. Some experts claim that PTC promises the possibility of significantly improving railroad capacity by removing fixed operating blocks (wayside signaling sections) and allowing trains to operate with higher frequency and closer proximity. In theory, PTC would benefit rail carriers by increasing capacity and decreasing line-side signal assets and maintenance costs.

However, due to a way in which PTC is being implemented—partially the result of an unrealistically short, federally mandated timeline—the benefits will be quite limited. Meanwhile, the national economy, railroad shareholders and the travelling public will bear the consequences as track owners (largely freight railroads) must fund PTC implementation.

When the mandate was issued, railroad managements gave the responsibility of implementing this network-centric technology to their Signal Departments. Stuck with a very short timeline (December 31, 2015), the desire to minimize implementation cost and a logical and entrenched aversion to risk (due to familiarity with current systems), railroad Signal Departments are “overlaying” PTC onto existing signaling technology / infrastructure, some of which was introduced as early as 1884 (Automatic Block Signal and Centralized Traffic Control systems).

Instead of increasing capacity through stand-alone PTC usage, railroads are adding complication and constraining PTC benefits by tethering it to decades old train control systems. This redundant rigidity (akin to having a cell phone that must always be plugged in) will largely eliminate operational benefits the railroads could have realized from their PTC capital investment, an amount estimated at $12 billion industry-wide. Though railroad CEO’s admit they will obtain some benefit from reducing accidents and slightly improving efficiency, the benefits hardly warrant such a colossal mis-investment.

The inadequate return on investment is primarily a result of two factors: 1) aforementioned timeline combined with undeveloped / unproven technology; and 2) an excellent pre-existing safety level. With respect to the second factor, thanks to continual improvement in operator training and rules, there are relatively few fatal passenger rail accidents today. In 2011, the most fatal passenger rail crash—resulting in the loss of six lives—occurred when a limestone truck collided with Amtrak’s California Zephyr in Nevada. This accident would not have been prevented by PTC though funding of improved grade crossing safety measures and community awareness (Operation Lifesaver) has been proven to greatly reduce risk and save lives.

Ironically, the astronomical cost of PTC will have a negative impact on the growth of passenger rail in the U.S. Given the resultant decrease in capacity, freight railroads will think twice before allowing additional higher-speed passenger trains, funded by the same Federal Government, onto their existing passenger corridors. Furthermore, if a prospective service sponsor wishes to add new passenger rail service over a currently freight-only corridor, the sponsor will need to pay the additional cost of PTC to access that corridor, slowing the inevitable growth of passenger rail in our country. Finally, the PTC-induced, slowed passenger service growth through cost and capacity constraints may cause more total driving injuries and fatalities than would have occurred had PTC not been mandated.

The need to prevent loss of life and serious injury is paramount to both the general public and the railroad industry, but the end does not necessarily justify the means. At a time when conservatives and liberals alike recognize the need for smarter and better government, the freight railroad industry should not be forced to be less efficient and reduce the capacity over its privately-owned and maintained lines, thereby increasing costs across the entire economy.  Better government this is not.

Push the deadline back and allow the railroads to make the right investment.

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