Hey! Watch this.

Last week there was the story on National Public Radio about the young fellow who challenged his friends to the old chestnut about not licking a stop sign’s metal pole in freezing weather.  The story went on to state how the boy was standing on the tips of his toes for 15 minutes until the firemen were able to release his tongue.

Hey!  Watch this! (H!WT)  Ah yes! The last spoken (and printable) words of impetuous young males who fatuously attempt to perform ridiculous if not impossible acts. Whether it is a passion for the limelight, a flash of perceived brilliance, or a display of bravado, whatever, such acts of pure stupidity can result in serious degradation of the soul, if not destruction of the body. Fortunately, somewhere in our post-teen years we mature and we take on a sense of self-preservation for the benefit of ourselves and our family and learn to not yield to such temptations. We become responsible and reflective and make clear cut, well-justified analyses of the matters at hand before we take action.  And, should we find that we are in error with the actions we took, then we adjust our reasoning by adding a new variable to the equation, or perhaps adjusting the coefficients, and we are then just that more effective should the situation occur in the future. Yes! Life is good … and all makes sense . . .  eventually.      Well! Maybe not always.

Unfortunately, stuff happens that is forced upon us, instead of being of our choice, and the manner in which we respond is more often than not, I believe, directly related to the level of the chaos of the situation. That is, the more chaotic / disturbing the situation, the more ill-structured, the more irresponsible our reaction may be. In such situations, the impulsive H!WT response still occurs but in a reactive fashion versus the proactive fashion of our youth.  Now, if you mix this reactive response with politics and a high level of public exposure, then you have the underlying explanation of why Positive Train Control (PTC) has been mandated in the U.S. This is a situation where a proactive H!WT begot a passive H!WT. First, some statistics.

According to the U.S.’s General Accounting Office (GOA) report of December, 2010 regarding Rail Safety, Human errors have been the primary cause of rail accidents (34%) for the past decade relative to 5 other common causes.  Track issues are a close second (32%), with the remaining 1/3 due to crossings, equipments, signals (only 2%), and the ever present other. As to the movement of trains, the two primary human factors are dispatchers and train crews. While traffic control systems are used to prevent dispatcher errors, there has been very little provided prior to PTC to prevent crew errors across North America’s freight railroads. Back to H!WT.

The train accident at Chatsworth, CA on September 12, 2008 between Metrolink and UP in which 25 people died was a proactive H!WT on the part of the Metrolink driver that thought he could text message while operating his train. In less than 5 weeks Congress did their H!WT knee-jerk reaction, as in we have to stop the carnage due to train crew errors, by passing the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008. This act mandates PTC before 2016 across most of the nation’s trackage. Clearly, there was no cost vs. value justification, even though it was already known by the FRA and the railroads from the RSAC-PTC process that PTC was not cost justified on safety benefits. From Congress’s standpoint, something just had to be done, regardless of the cost. And, about those costs, the price tag is horrific. Specifically, as estimated by the FRA, the cost of meeting the mandate ranges from $9. Billion to $13.1 billion. As to the benefits, the safety value of PTC over 20 years is estimated to range between $440 million to $674 million. That is a 20-to-1 cost/value ratio that is way beyond any rational business decision that would be made in the private sector. Undoubtedly, to their defense, Congress was being fed misleading statements of PTC delivering business benefits (see my previous posting Really! You Gotta Let it Go), Additionally, NTSB was stoking the PTC fire with its long standing proclamation that PTC was on its Most Wanted list. Rational financial thinking was out of the window, and self-preserving politics were in play for those on the Hill.

Although the Chatsworth tragedy was directly responsible for the mandating of PTC, it was not the first to tempt such fate. In 1996, a MARC commuter collided with Amtrak in Silver Springs, MD resulting in 11 deaths.    Given that its engineer was the driver of the MARC commuter and was at fault, CSX decided to pursue the development of the yet-to-be defined overlay PTC concept. CSX did this in anticipation of a H!WT by Congress, especially considering that the accident took place in Congress’s backyard. This is where I entered the picture in that I was hired by CSX at that time to deliver what was then referred to as  Positive Train Separation (PTS).  The resulting system, known as Communications Based Train Management (CBTM), provided the underlying architecture and functionality of the current PTC pursuits by the freight railroads to meet the mandate.

So! Why did Congress not do a H!WT after the Silver Springs’ accident? The answer, I believe, is two-fold. First, UP was in the process of abandoning an extremely expensive and undeliverable Precision Train Control (PTC™) system. Although the same acronym as Positive Train Control, there is a key difference between PTC™ and PTC.  That is, PTC™ was meant to be both a traffic control (moving block) and enforcement system, whereas PTC is only the latter. Undoubtedly, UP and its Class I siblings had to be all over the Hill at that time to prevent a mandate of such a technology. The second reason is that CSX took the initiative to “develop something that is effective, but cheap” as were my marching orders, thereby lessening of the pressure on Congress to H!WT .

There was also a second accident that could have resulted in the mandate of PTC. In January 2005, a NS train proceeded through a misaligned switch and collided with a standing NS train in Graniteville, SC. This accident involved hazardous material and resulted in 9 deaths and the evacuation of 5400 residents within a mile of accident for 2 weeks. While it didn’t result in a mandate, the accident did result in a fourth core objective of PTC, i.e., prevent movement through a misaligned switch, in addition to the original 3 core objectives defined in the RSAC-PTC process nearly a decade earlier: 1. prevent train-to-train accidents (PTS), 2. prevent over-speeding, and 3. prevent trains from endangering on-track workers.

PTC is definitely not justified on safety benefits, and it doesn’t deliver business benefits. At first that seems bad for PTC deployment outside of the U.S. However, that is really not true in that there are so many railroads, whether private or state owned, that don’t incorporate safety as part of the mantra of operations. There are so many railroads, whether private or state owned, that are being forced by traditional suppliers with traditional solutions to deploy traffic control and enforcement systems that are totally unjustified for their level of operations.  In these environments, the consideration of PTC in concert with non-signaled traffic control, a.k.a. dark territory, would present a solid, cost-effective solution for both safe and efficient operations – that is if they were willing to listen. Now, as to North America, PTC is really not a loser financially as well, that is if there would be a strategic technology plan associated with its implementation that permits the necessary wireless data platform to be used for business benefits as well. Unfortunately, however, most of the Class I’s have not gained such a perspective. This is due to the fact that there are so few technical staffs of the railroads, and even less executive management teams of railroads and suppliers alike, that are willing to do a proactive H!WT as to syncing a strategic technology plan with a strategic operations plan. Yes! I am referring to Strategic Railroading.

In closing, I will be the Chairman of the PTC Congress in Miami, FL on February 22. If you and/or your colleagues are attending that event, then I would appreciate the opportunity to meet you.

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4 Responses to “Hey! Watch this.”
  • Your Name Laurence Tiss:

    I have been following PTC, have google email allerts for all news read much and know what a nightmare it will be to develope and get up and running plus the fact that it will slow down train traffic and probably make operating a train more complex and therefore more hazardous for the train crew. Plus the over all safety gains per dollar cost are so high, you and others have shown, that the safety gains maybe very very low. I will conceed however in a very few areas it could have saved lives like in Washington. However the point you drew out and I would like to build on is this that, “Due to human error”, accidents these accidents the majority that caused deaths were at interlockings where the train operator disobeyed a stop signal and crossed into the path of another train creating a head on, side swipe or rear end train accident. Only the stop signal, that was disobeyed, restricted the train and operator from entering the other track there were no derails enstalled on the turnout side of the switch within the interlocking. Years ago in railroad track and signal interlocking design you had in track split-point derails or “hop-tode” derails at most all switch turnouts leading into interlockings. I remember many of them they were there to ensure that if a train operator ran past a stop signal with the switch lined against him the engine and train would derail away from the other track and not caues a collision with another train. What happened to all those derails and that way of designing tracks and interlockings? The railroads eliminated the derails to save a few dollars on design and maintenance. I estimated that a $250,000.00 each and say maybe 5000 turnouts nationwide the total cost would be 1.25 billion dollars double it for 10,000 turnouts it still 2.5 billion dollars and what you get is a fool proof way to prevent crashes by operators running stop signals at turnouts, but it too simple and makes too much sence.

  • Lawrence
    Thank you for your comment. You introduced an interesting point as to the split-point derails. There are some other points, however, that need to be taken into consideration, I believe. First, there is a correction to a point you gleaned from your following of PTC development. You mention that PTC may add to the complexity of the engineer, and therefore make it more hazardous for the crew. That really isn’t the case. PTC is an overlay system, meaning that it operates in the background without interference with the engineer’s operation until it senses that the train is in danger. At that point it only initially gives warnings, and then enforces should the crew not stay within the braking curve.

    As to the split point derail approach, please consider the following:
    1. derailing a train, especially with Haz Mat is not an acceptable solution. It is better to bring the train to a stop. I do recognize that a emergency brake application may cause a derailment, but won’t 100% of the time as will a derail alternative.
    2. 1/2 of the trackage in the U.S. is non-signaled, without track circuits – although perhaps only 1/3 of the trackage requiring PTC under the mandate is non-signaled.
    3. the derail approach, as I understand your explanation, doesn’t prevent overspeeding or entering a work zone without authority – which are two core objectives of PTC.
    4. the derail approach doesn’t prevent a train from entering a block for which it has a stop signal, but the switch is aligned properly, or there is no switch. Serious accidents have and will otherwise occur without PTC, at other than interlockings.

    Given the above, the derail approach would require additional concepts to have it meet all of the core objectives of PTC that were set forth by the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008. Whether or not those core objectives are reasonable and even less cost justified than the interlocking issue would be an interesting discussion, that is if it wasn’t for H!WT.

    If I misunderstood your point(s), then please let me know.

  • Your Name Laurence Tiss:

    I agree with your Points about Haz Mat cargo, dark territory, and a rear ender on straight track. But at interlockings on rail systems that do not handle Haz Mat cargo and where turn outs onto main tracks or even main tracks going over a movable rail bridge over a river and coming out of a yard through a turn out switch onto a main track derails have been and are still a part of interlocking and track lay out design and used to protect the mainline track. As you well pointed out they will not work in certain applications but in some they would of worked. I think about that terrible Amtrak and Conrail crash where a Conrail train ran a stop signal at a turn out came out in front of an Amtrak train doing 110mph many people were killed this happened in the 80’s in Maryland the Conrail engineer was high on coke. A derail at that turn would have prevented that crash. Also there is an interlocking on the SEPTA rail commuter railroad that was fromer PRR, it is Chestnut Hill West line at Chestnut Hill West the end of the line is small interlocking two cross over switches and two derails. It is all down hill from there to Amtrak’s North Philly Interlocking, to clear a signal in or out the derail’s part of the interlocking had to be operated. The reason they were part of the design is that if a train, car or track equiptment, started rolling and got away in would not stop until it came out on the Mainline now owned by Amtrak. So I would argue that in a case by case situation derails will still be a good way to go.

    Laurence Tiss

  • Lawrence: I take your point that there could be a selective mixture of technologies / approaches, i.e., PTC where mandated and other where it isn’t based upon circumstances.Thank you.

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Given recent tech advances there is now an unprecedented opportunity to advance railroad operations and the integration of high speed rail with freight. Real-time traffic management and communication is possible without significant development and deployment costs, but it will take a technology strategy working hand-in-hand with an operational strategy, it will take Strategic Railroading.™
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