On December 1, 2013, there was an accident on the Metro North Railroad (MNR) that resulted in 4 fatalities. In some 30 years of operation, this was the first accident on the railroad that resulted in passenger fatalities: quite a phenomenal record for any form of passenger transport. The source of the accident was the failure of the driver to reduce the speed of his train on a curve with the train flying off the track. The reason for his failure was, according to the driver, his dozing off.
There are actually two systems available on MNR to prevent accidents due to such driver errors with a third system due before 2016. However, neither of the current systems could be used by that given train on that given portion of track. First, there is an alertness system that requires the driver to perform some action (e.g., touch a button) with a certain frequency (e.g., every 25 seconds) to silence an alarm and prevent an automatic brake application. However, for this train that system was available in the locomotive in the front of the train, whereas the driver was operating from a position in the rear of the train. Second, unlike freight railroads that use wayside signaling, MNR (and many transits) uses cab signaling which in addition to knowing block occupancy and track divergence can include civil speed enforcement if such data is provided to the on-board platform. For that portion of track, there was no such data provided –that would have permitted the cab-signaling platform to enforce. But, there is now. Now, with the mandate to implement Positive Train Control (PTC), there will be a third enforcement approach that will prevent accidents due to driver errors including overspeeding anywhere along the track, passing the physical boundary of the movement authority, moving through misaligned switches, and entering a work zone without permission.
So! What price safety? Without any hard figures to back me up, my experience tells me the following:
- Alerterness systems are relatively inexpensive, but also somewhat limited as to safety value;
- Cab signaling is a no-brainer for transits. It is both a traffic control (versus very costly wayside signaling) and an enforcement system, although somewhat limited when compared to PTC.
- PTC is extremely expensive, but the most comprehensive in preventing accidents. However, as has been demonstrated by independent parties, the Cost / Value ratio of PTC across the rail industry is quoted at 20 to 1 for a 20 year period. However, my personal view is that the ratio is more likely 10 to 1 if the freight railroads’ technicians had not done such an irresponsible technical and functional overdesign of PTC (postings on this point are available by clicking on the PTC category on the right side of the home page.)
So! Perhaps a better questions is: Who should pay for a mandated system whose cost far exceeds its value? In the case of the transits with both alertness systems and cab signaling there is another question that has not been answered to my knowledge: What is the true Cost / Value ratio for transits given that PTC provides incremental increase in safety given the use of alerterness systems and cab signaling? This analysis would result in a higher Cost / Value ratio. And, does a government-owned entity really want to spend that kind of money for that incremental safety benefit?
Now, to the ridiculous of What price safety? On the day following the MNR accident, I was contacted by CNN to see if I would be willing to be interviewed by Brooke Baldwin during her 2-4 PM show. They had interviewed me previously regarding the horrific train accident in Spain in July, also due to operator error as to overspeeding on a curved section of track. (As a side note, my colleague Dave Schanoes handled the evening show on CNN for both the Spain and MNR accident.) I was asked if I could discuss the use of seat belts on trains as well as federal regulation regarding train safety. After a silent gasp of “REALLY, you’re serious?”, I thought I was clear with them that I need not address the issue of seat belts, but surely no problem with the regulatory issues. So! Guess how the 3 minute interview went. The first question asked by Ms. Baldwin: ” Ron, let’s just cut to it. Is it about time that we have seat belts on trains?” With a smile I replied “That’s a very interesting point.” and went on to get the conversation back to a rational understanding that we run a safe railroad … and so on…. and that PTC is not justified. Closing with “What cost safety?” click here to see interview: cnn interview
Just as the mandate of PTC was a knee-jerk reaction by Congress to the Metrolink / UP accident in September, 2008, I have little doubt that there is some local, state, and/or Federal politician that would like to run with the seat belt concept.