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.