I normally don’t write about topics in my profession: I think of blogging as a relief from work. But I can’t resist commenting on a news item this week.
First, a little background. For years, legislating requiring railroads in the US to install a positive train control system had been kicking around Congress. Public interest groups supported it; the railroads hated it. The stalemate persisted until 2008, when a head-on collision between a freight train and a commuter train occurred in California, killing about 20. At that point, Congress was galvanized into action: the Rail Safety Improvement Act was passed, and signed by President Bush, less than two weeks afterward. It requires certain mainline railroads in the US to implement positive train control systems over some 60,000 miles of track by the end of 2015. (The territory where the California accident took place had a signal system, but no method of enforcement if a train should overrun a stop signal.)
Like any other human endeavor, railroads are imperfect: accidents happen, sometimes spectacular ones. But on balance, railroads are safer than most other forms of transport. The Positive Train Control system will incrementally improve safety, but at a cost of some $13 billion dollars to build, plus ongoing maintenance. Meanwhile, from fewer accidents and improved operating efficiencies, the railroads will gain about 5% of that for their efforts. And the system will not prevent all accidents: Positive Train Control would not have prevented the accident in Quebec last July, when a runaway train of crude oil derailed at the bottom of a hill, destroying 30 buildings and killing 42.
In any case, as of 2008, the railroads had a little over seven years to implement this system. The first year could only be spent on general planning, because the regulations still had to be written. But the railroads set to work on it, making progress, although the 2015 deadline was still a difficult target.
Earlier this year, there was talk about extending the 2015 deadline, which on balance seems reasonable. But this week, a news item crossed my desk: the sites for 22,000 radio towers, required to make the system work, would have to be approved by Native American tribes across the country, to ensure that the sites did not cover sacred burial grounds.
Where did such madness come from? I thought of the times I have driven cross-country and the innumerable radio towers to support cell phone service. But it turns out that those towers were subject to the same approvals. The phone companies presumably set up a process for getting the sites approved with minimal delay, and built out their networks like they planned.
So now, I’m disappointed: either the consultants and engineers involved in Positive Train Control implementation don’t know what they’re doing, or they’re overstating the dimensions of the problem to cadge for more time.