Legislating magical solutions


The New York Times is one of the world's great newspapers, with an enviable reputation and impressive history. Therefore, when they miss the mark - especially in such a profound way - it tends to hurt.

Earlier this week, the Times printed an editorial entitled "Don't Bargain With Rail Safety," outlining the publication's unilateral support of the Positive Train Control concept. It's full of misconception, innuendo and baseless imputation, and indicates a thorough lack of understanding regarding railroading, business operations and the political process.

The Times apparently believes any request to delay implementation of P.T.C. must be based on greed ("groups [such as the A.A.R.] contend the costs outweigh the benefits"), partisan politics ("House Republicans, ever determined to do [the railroad] industries' bidding, have taken up their cause") and ignorance of the facts (since railway executives "question the availability of equipment").

While I acknowledge the temptation for mass media to ride the "robber baron" express, this all still seems a bit outrageous.

In many aspects of life, especially within the political world, there are actions which are taken for but one primary reason: the deep-seated fear of appearing impotent.

If a simple problem requires simple attention, then a bona fide emergency or horrific incident of some sort demands an almost immediate response. The last thing politicos want is to be labeled as someone who fails to do something, even if it later ends up being the wrong thing.

If the inevitable reaction involves spending large sums of money, especially if the cash belongs to someone else (or at least the taxpayer, presuming that's not the same thing), it's even better. We've seen it time and again.

In response to the Chatsworth, California Metrolink collision of 12 September '08, a new piece of legislation was quickly ushered through Congress by the Senate Commerce and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committees. The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which (among many other things) mandates installation of Positive Train Control technologies, was signed into law by President George W. Bush on October the 16th: just 34 days after the incident which spawned it and over 15 months prior to the release of the N.T.S.B.'s official report regarding the incident.

Admittedly, the A.A.R. issued a statement in support of the bill prior to its passage. Still, how can we expect our industry's emissary go on record as supporting anything but "safety first" (after all, the railroads coined that expression) and standing unified against the loss of life?

The phrase which just crossed my mind is "under duress."

Only days after the Metrolink/UP crash, then F.R.A. Administrator (and current Amtrak President) Joseph H. Boardman told reporters that "[P.T.C.] would have stopped the [passenger] train before there was a collision." A locomotive Engineer willing to take his job seriously and respect the lives and equipment entrusted to his care "would have stopped...before there was a collision," too; but, we won't go there.

The N.T.S.B. soon followed with a statement indicating P.T.C. (or a similar system) "would have prevented this accident." With all due respect to the Safety Board, this remark seems far less prescient when one remembers P.T.C. had already been on the N.T.S.B.'s Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements for years.

In all this, the fact that P.T.C., even now, does not exist as an off-the-shelf technology seems lost to those standing on the outside, bloviating. Its multi-billion dollar price tag is apparently meaningless.

Of course, there must also be piles of cash available for lawsuits. It took but three days after the Chatsworth incident for the first claims to be filed. Bolstered by the previously mentioned remarks, attorneys began alleging that Metrolink "chose not to use the available rail safety features" which, in context, seemingly referred to P.T.C.

Naturally, there are other, older systems (electro-mechanical by design) such as Automatic Train Stop and various forms of cab signaling which have been successfully used for generations. Interestingly, several U.S. passenger carriers began to make public statements shortly after the Metrolink event intended to reassure both the general public and their customers regarding the relative safety of their operations. Every one of the systems outlined either indicated their reliance on time-proven technologies and/or operational standards, or emphasized various forms of temporal separation (which, in all honesty, may only mean that passenger train collisions would never involve freight trains).

One of the nice things about A.T.S. and cab signals (along with other forms of Automatic Train Control) is that those systems can overlay existing signaling and communication devices. Many of the technologies now in place have been successfully used since the 1920s. Britain's own Great Western Railway developed the very first automatic safety control system in 1906.

Admittedly, an incremental approach to P.T.C. - the only sort which could possibly meet the fed's arbitrary deadline - would also overlay existing systems, with wayside components ("interface units") being used to dovetail individual signals, switches, detectors and the like into a new digital network. In turn, that data link would connect specific pieces of equipment (such as locomotives and hi-rail vehicles) and voice communications services with the other devices, so that every vital ingredient was included.

Most major railroads have studied the concept of P.T.C., under many different names and (sometimes quite forced) acronyms, for decades. It should be noted that, from the start, our industry - including the Brotherhoods - has remained dedicated to the basic notion of automatic train control safety devices and, along with the F.R.A., the N.T.S.B. and Congress, stands in agreement with today's stated goals for P.T.C. Those objectives include preventing several types of dangerous events: collisions between trains, overspeed operations, movement through misaligned switches and incursion into properly established work zones. [Issues regarding switches and speed control (or the lack thereof) regularly make the top ten in the F.R.A.'s annual safety analysis lists.]

At present, there are 11 ongoing projects, involving 9 different systems and 6 manufacturers. Thankfully, the four major players - NS, UP, BNSF and CSX - hammered out a cooperative agreement back in late '08, understanding what's ultimately at stake. Several individual approaches to P.T.C. are in the works, but all those under the purview of the four Class Is previously mentioned are being designed to maintain interoperability by way of Wabtec's Electronic Train Management System.

This is important since P.T.C., no matter how it ultimately evolves, should essentially be universal in scope - for the same reasons developments like standard gauge and rolling stock brake and coupler appliances have been so important.

Therefore, our question for the day: what's a justifiable alternative to the legislated time schedule as it now exists?

Well, I suppose the simple answer would be to approach this matter from a completely new perspective. Instead of knee-jerk politics creating a mandate for change, allow the industry to use this as an opportunity: a chance to make a technological leap into the future.

Right now, what's in it for the railroads? As it currently stands, P.T.C. is yet another example of an unfunded mandate - nothing more. We're insisting that the capital needs for presumed public benefits be covered with private money. To meet the bare minimum requirements will only give us a fancy (and expensive) train control system, similar to what was in development more than a century ago. Moreover, a fair estimate for the cost of base-line P.T.C. overlay is 1.2 million dollars per mile of high-density main line track. Washington needs to move away from the idea that spending large sums of money tends to do anything but consume large sums of money.

Yes, saving innocent lives is crucial! No one argues with that. Still, if we were never allowed to do anything which posed even the slightest risk of danger, we'd never accomplish anything at all!

Give our industry time to establish goals, develop standards and set priorities. P.T.C., properly handled, could lead to a great, systemic change for North American railroading, similar in its own way to dieselisation. It must be noted, however, that the switch from steam to diesel-electric power occurred over a 30-sum-odd year period and - get this - was due to the railroads' own decisions, goals and investments. No governmental edicts were involved. The industry was also able to make this change gradually over time and at its own pace; no absolute deadlines were established. Finally, diesels promised something for the coffers immediately; there was an initial financial incentive. I've seen the figures: steam locomotives offered better tractive effort at speed. Apart from that, things like maintenance costs and the inability to operate multiple units with one engine crew sealed their fate.

So, what might be in it for the railroads if they get P.T.C. right the first time 'round?

How about significant increases in equipment utilization, employee productivity, energy efficiency, scheduling ability and, above all, safety? How about dramatically improved customer service? How about eliminating the causes of incidents instead of just the incidents themselves?

Out here in the real world, the best solutions involve answers to actual problems. Those solutions are not magic, nor do they often stem from a singular epiphany, but come about through necessity, trial and error, and scientific research.

Those solutions also can't be legislated into existence.

It seems pretty simple, doesn't it?



  • First, Garl, never, ever use the New York Times as a source of information about railroads.  The Times rarely covers rail transportation, so it has no expertise on which to draw.  Also, its editorial writers are almost totally out of communication with any news reporters/writers who might have some knowledge.  They even are housed on different floors of the Times building.

    Second, as you point out so well, the PTC mandate is unfunded.  Congress orders, but it doesn't pay.  I wonder what the Times reaction would be to a federal law requiring it to turn over its printing presses to produce the daily Congressional Record.  As a taxpayer, I am "annoyed" at the cost of publishing the daily blather of Congress.  I can almost hear the Times' screams of rage now - delicious.

    The cost-benefit study of the current PTC mandate was conducted by the FRA and was based solely on the parameters of the legislation.  It found a cost of about 22 times the benefit; clearly not something that any capitalist would undertake, especially when there are so few rail collisions and the vast majority of employee injuries and accidents occur from getting on and off moving equipment or failing to pay attention to moving equipment in yards - neither of which would be eliminated by PTC.

    PTC might have economic justification if it were not to be an overlay.  Part of its cost comes from the cost of maintaining existing signal systems and paying for the PTC overlay - and keeping two otherwise competing unions in business.  A properly designed PTC system would enable railroads to put more trains into a given segment of track than at present because the existing block signal technology would not be necessary.  Thus, greater capacity would be available, as would higher speeds.  It all comes down to the principle that if you know where your train is at all times you can operate in closer proximity and at higher speeds because the PTC system will prevent it from exceeding its authority.  

    I saw the Times editorial.  The Times quite obviously does not understand anything about PTC and didn't think it necessary to learn before jumping to its conclusion.  There's another issue.  The current PTC mandate requires radio frequency that does not yet exist and probably will not exist before the 2015 deadline.  That is not a function of railroad recalcitrance, but of the limitations of technology.  I could go on, but you did a fine job, Garl, and don't need more from me on this subject now.

  • Clearly, the problem is simple: the law is too narrow.

    Instead of "positive TRAIN control," we need "positive TRANSPORTATION control," and we should start on each mode in order of seriousness, starting with the cars.  They'd get to rail in...I dunno?  2099?

    Dunno how we'd handle the pedestrians, but, in terms of ton-miles, I think they might be more dangerous than rail.  We could all carry little transponders wired to self-tazers, maybe?  Like one of those "invisible fence" dog collars.

    Clearly, we need a demonstration project...Hmm, where's RAILWAYIST?

  • Garl,  while your argument is well articulated and equally well defended by Larry's comments, I am not persuaded.  At the risk of being shunned by the apparent majority of industry stakeholders who oppose the legislation and timeline, I support it.  I've heard the arguments related to cost-benefit etc. and while I have my own reservations about their validity I don't dispute the notion that the incremental approach will prove more costly.  Too bad the private sector didn't initiate change decades ago.

    I've seen and heard of far too many accidents and close calls over the course of my career to oppose a formal government initiative to mandate change.  

    And while the NY Times article may indeed be "full of misconception, innuendo and baseless imputation" as you claim, I feel the same about articles that defend the opposing argument with similar vigor.  

    Sometimes to appreciate what happens in the middle, one needs to consider the two extremes.

  • Points well taken, Blaine.  To clarify, my comments were meant to be critical of the knee-jerk behavior of the Congress.  And, yes, because a proper implementation of PTC would provide the rails with business benefits that were not even conceived of by Congress, I support implementation and like you think it should have been done by the carriers themselves some years ago.  It is my understanding that the railroads are hopeful of getting Congress to pick up oart of the cost of their mandate, and as long as that remains even a remote possibility, they simply will not admit to any business benefits.  It's hard enough getting the feds to pay for their mandates; it's even harder to get them to do so when you demonstrably don't need the financial assistance.

  • Points well taken, Blaine.  To clarify, my comments were meant to be critical of the knee-jerk behavior of the Congress.  And, yes, because a proper implementation of PTC would provide the rails with business benefits that were not even conceived of by Congress, I support implementation and like you think it should have been done by the carriers themselves some years ago.  It is my understanding that the railroads are hopeful of getting Congress to pick up oart of the cost of their mandate, and as long as that remains even a remote possibility, they simply will not admit to any business benefits.  It's hard enough getting the feds to pay for their mandates; it's even harder to get them to do so when you demonstrably don't need the financial assistance.

  • Thanks Larry!  I was worried I was in for a verbal bashing!  

    Consider some of the proceedings of a recent rail safety seminar that I attended.  While we westerners are giving presentations related to the 'forensics' of derailment investigations, representation from Japan is discussing their derailment history, all three of them!  The point is that just perhaps we have become so accustomed to the short-comings associated with operating on an antiquated train control system, that we have lost sight of the way things could or should be.  

    Of course it's going to cost money.  And given the relatively short deployment schedule attached to the mandate, in my opinion, the railroads should be entitled to federal support.  

    I'm one that firmly believes that change as radical as that imposed by the PTC mandate is long, long overdue.  Let's get things moving ultimately faster and more safely!

  • From what I've read and heard, railroad management has taken pains to minimize the potential benefits in order to discredit PTC as a costly imposition on management decision-making.  Beside passenger operation safety, a very limited and costly implementation for the national rail network, industry opposition to PTC ignores the too frequent freight collisions.  The BN tests and the promise of better train management have been suppressed in this political battle.

  • I doubt either one of you has a clue about PTC. The knee-jerk was to a terrible wreck involving passengers. Why was the mandate not kept to that parameter? We systems folks know there are no short cuts to safety. Ask China what the deal is with their horrible record of non-Safety. The point is that Signals and Safety require absolute integrity. That point is lost on Politicos and Communists. If railroaders thought the mandate made sense and covered a complete package, we would stand behind the mandate. We would still have our hand out, however.

  • All this legislation sounds great!  Who's gonna pay for it?  Passenger rail service has never been self funding, and in the current economic conditions, it's hardly feasible to pass the costs along to the riders.  You also can't justify passing the costs on to the non-riding taxpayers.  So the dilema remains... passenger safety will be compromised.  

  • Greetings, Gentlemen (And Ladies, as the case may be)...

    Just signed on, after lurking this Forum for a good while. I must say I am a seasoned Old Coot, and not charmed with notions of needless spending of any money!

    Is the "PTC" argument with any foundation at all? With the current state of our "National Passenger Network" scheme, then: Would it not be cheaper to simply buy tickets on "low cost" air carriers, or highway bus for any possible riders?

    Does it not appear remote, at best, much short of any possibility of regaining lost "critical mass" of riders? No "enviro" benefits if no one rides the trains?

    Also, is it not a bit much to demand the carriers commit "finite resources" to a wonderful idea with little demonstrated capabilities?


  • I keep seeing the references to the Chatsworth tragedy linked to PTC, so let’s look at a few “what-if’s”.

    • What if the railroad had been equipped with PTC at the time of the collision?  It probably would have prevented the event and saved the 24 lives, provided the brakes worked properly on the commuter train.  BUT there was no functional PTC at the time and there still isn’t.

    • What if the railroad had been equipped with NEC-style cab signals and speed control (penalty brake applications if the train is moving too fast for the signal indication)?  That also might have prevented the collision if the commuter engineman had not found a way to defeat the system and the brakes functioned properly on the commuter train.

    • What if the railroad had been double track?  (That was the system of safety improvement favored by the Commodore Vanderbilt some 175 years ago.)   It would have been costly, but perhaps not as costly as PTC at the Chatsworth location.  It definitely would have prevented the head-on collision.

    • What if the freight train speed were slightly faster than it was on the section of single track?  Presumably a freight train entering the single track section at the same time would have reached the turnout at Chatsworth before the commuter train.  At worst, the commuter train would have side-swiped the UP freight train and most or all of the 24 people would have been saved.

    • What if the standards for the construction of the commuter train equipment had been different?  The Union Pacific freight crew all survived the wreck.  The fatalities were all on the commuter train, including the offending engineman.  The freight accordioned.  The passenger train telescoped.

    • What if the rules that are now in effect about cell phone use were in effect then?  We can never know, but probably there would have been no wreck.

    Notice that most of the solutions suggested here are probably less expensive than PTC for just the one line of railroad?  They were just too expensive to implement BEFORE 24 people were killed.

    I also remember seeing the report of another wreck.  It happened on the eve of President Eisenhower’s inauguration.  The brakes failed on the Federal Express from Boston on the last leg of its trip into Washington.  The GG-1 locomotive crashed through the wall of the station and then settled into the basement.  No one was killed.  

    What had apparently happened was that one valve on the train line (air brake line) at the rear of a car just behind the locomotive had vibrated closed after the train had left Baltimore.  So, when the engineman tried to slow for the stop at the end of track in Washington, he could not.  If this happened with PTC, the same results would occur unless the trains were slowed greatly when coming into Washington – extending trip times and reducing the number of trains that the NEC could handle.   (The solution proposed was to adjust how the brake pipes were hung on the type of car where the valve had closed.  Not a high-tech or expensive solution, but evidently effective.)

    A side point of this is that, if one spends $24 million or $240,000 to solve a problem, the expensive solution should be 100 times as effective or why bother?  Or, looking at it from another perspective, if you can solve the problem for $240,000, you should then have enough money left out of the $24 million to address another 99 problems.  

  • HarveyK400:  You refer to all too frequent freight collisions.  This is simply not so.  The incidence of trains banging into each other is really quite rare.  PTC, which I support, only can prevent a locomotive from exceeding its dispatched authority.  PTC will not eliminate or reduce rail-highway grade crossing incidents.  Nor will it prevent yard incidents where a car is sent over the hump or propelled by a unit at too high a speed.

  • ARailroaderWhoRemembersThings:  Splendid discourse.  Too bad members of Congress and too many others to mention are either illiterate or don't care to have a rational discussion.  For the benefit of some who comment here, there are some issues that should be considered.  First, the PTC mandate is for track over which passenger traffic operates AND where TIH (toxic by inhalation) commodities are carried.  PTC would, in fact, have prevented several of the accidents where a following train ran into one and caused the release of the "ethyl methyl ugly" as some of us refer to it.  Also, there is a legitimate business benefit to PTC that is done right.  If you know at all times, within six feet, precisely where your locomotive is, how long the train is, what its stopping distance is, you can reduce separation between trains.  That increases capacity.  Capacity can be further increased by increasing authorized speed for the same reason that the train can be stopped.

  • hwyhaulier (vern):  The "it would be cheaper to buy airplane tickets" argument has been around ever since the Congress created Amtrak rather than a more effective "solution" to the rapid demise of passenger rail service some 40 years ago.  It ignores the people who for health reasons cannot travel by air. It ignores the fact that there are only about 500 communities in the U.S. that have commercial air service.  And at the risk of offending (who me?) a trucker, it also ignores that if highway users ever paid their allocable share of the highways they consume the railroads would have had more traffic, more revenue, and more earnings.  Then perhaps they would have continued to subsidize their passenger service with the profits of freight as they had done for a generation or two.  The crisis was not a passenger crisis.  Passenger rail always lost money.  The crisis was that railroads no longer had the profits from freight that allowed them to subsidize passenger service.  Much of that crisis was the result of providing infrastructure to truckers for which they didn't come close to paying.

  • The amazing ability of the human being to adapt to changing environments has allowed us to survive but it also allows us to do imaginative ( and frequently stupid) things to get around limitations imposed on behaviors thought to impede our individual expressions of "freedom," like texting when operating a trainload of fellow human beings.  Perhaps some safety concerns (fatigue?)  can be better addressed by railroad management being more concerned with and understanding more full the full dimensions of each job as it too has evolved with higher speeds, heavier & longer trains, etc.