The Wrong Lessons From the Metro-North Train Crash

The many costs of bad regulation.

In the aftermath of the deadly Metro-North train wreck in New York, there was ample fuel for outrage. The anger was directed at the driver for apparently taking a turn way too fast—and at the federal government for not making that impossible.

Back in 2008, after another fatal accident, Congress ordered passenger and freight railroads to adopt a system called Positive Train Control that would stop trains before they crash. But the deadline for implementation is not until 2015, and the industry wants to delay it further.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said the new system "will save lives when it is deployed, and every day of delay leaves in place a 19th century signaling system dependent entirely on the attention of each train's lone engineer." The National Transportation Safety Board agreed that it probably would have averted the Metro-North crash.

It may seem criminal that the nation's railroads haven't already adopted the technology. In fact, the case for this option is surprisingly weak. The real question is not why the requirement was not implemented sooner, but whether it should be implemented at all.

The main reason for doubt is the cost. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) estimates that the price tag, including installation, will exceed $10 billion—nearly as much as all the railroads in America spend on capital investment in a given year.

The mandate from Congress, like many mandates from Congress, came notably short on the money needed to pay for it. It's a demand that local railroads and communities spend their own revenues in a way that may not match their needs.

Here in northern Illinois, the commuter rail agency Metra has asked for an extension of the deadline. Spokesman Michael Gillis says an official study found that it needs nearly $10 billion over the next decade "to keep the system in a state of good repair." Established state and federal programs will provide only $2 billion. The $235 million needed for anti-crash devices is among the funds that won't fall out of the sky.

Nor is Positive Train Control a simple fix. The system is complex, multifaceted and a long way from being perfected. An August report by the federal Government Accountability Office warned, "By attempting to implement PTC by the 2015 deadline while key components are still in development, railroads could be introducing financial and operational risks."

What would the change accomplish, if it worked as intended? The Congressional Research Service noted that it "is expected to prevent less than two percent of the approximately 2,000 railroad collisions and derailments that occur annually." The FRA says that between 1987 and 1997, it would have saved about seven lives a year. For comparison's sake, more than 33,000 people die every year in U.S. auto accidents.

Even when it comes to saving lives, some investments have too low a payoff to justify the money they require, and this is one of those. The FRA estimated that the costs of imposing it would exceed the benefits by 20-fold.

Cass Sunstein, who was in charge of assessing regulations for President Barack Obama, was asked during a 2011 House hearing whether he knew of any federal rules that clearly failed the cost-benefit test. "There is only one big one that comes to mind," he replied. "It is called Positive Train Control."

No one doubts the system would prevent injuries and fatalities. But if that were the sole consideration, we'd all be driving armored vehicles to the grocery and wearing bulletproof vests to walk the dog.

Money spent on this remedy is also money that can't be spent on others that may be more critical. Earlier this year an executive of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority told The Wall Street Journal the federal rule would consume funds needed to repair a major bridge, forcing its closure. "We could have great signals," he said. "But we might not have safe bridges to run those trains over."

Or, come to think of it, safe crossings. Most rail accidents involve cars that roll onto the tracks in front of speeding trains. But efforts to prevent these collisions may go begging for money because Washington has a different priority. The end result may be more lives lost than saved.

At work here is the familiar government impulse to come up with a solution for every problem. In this case, it has run dangerously out of control, and there is no device to stop it.

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  • Sevo||

    "By attempting to implement PTC by the 2015 deadline while key components are still in development, railroads could be introducing financial and operational risks."

    Well, in that case, call in the experts! Get the group that developed the O-care site!

  • Eric Bana||

    Excellent article.

  • RobSmalls||

    Loved you in Blackhawk Down.

  • Adamsmith1776||

    "By attempting to implement PTC by the 2015 deadline while key components are still in development, railroads could be introducing financial and operational risks." In plain English, this means the introduction could make things even less safe. Kind of like Obamacare creates more uninsured people.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    Shouldn't you be writing about our duty to rescue Detroit, Chapman?

  • Libertarius||

    Railroads run thousands of trains every day, and with the unadulterated attention of *two* professionals driving them, the engineer and the conductor. My position on PTC is largely influenced by experience. Last summer there was a dreaded head-on between two trains out in Oklahoma on the Union Pacific. They were in CTC territory; CTC is Centralized Traffic Control, a signal system used in-addition to track warrant authority on the UP; a track warrant designates authority from one milepost to another on a given subdivision or line, CTC signals movements in blocks.

    I don't know if they ever got all the way down to the bottom on that one, but there was a story that the signals were indicating clear ahead on both sides of the same line, at the same time, in opposite directions. There is a bunch of controversy around it, but I can tell you that would not have happened out in track warrant country, because a track warrant is black or non-black and there is a thinking mind on the other side of it. It's not that I think they should scrap CTC, because it usually works great for what it does, which is direct traffic on busy lines or get trains slowed down on approach to a yard (which usually entails a city).

  • Libertarius||

    But I think that PTC would have to be run by GPS, and I just see too much opportunity for a satellite error (like a changeover, etc.) to have a train at mp 40 when it's actually at mp 140.

    And with GPS, I don't know if a computer would always be able to determine if a train was parked on a mainline or siding, since they're right beside one another.

    Nowhere is the devil in the details like on the railroad; one wrong signal, one box not checked, one switch lined the wrong way, one train where it's not supposed to be and you can have a really bad day at work.

  • ||

    And with GPS, I don't know if a computer would always be able to determine if a train was parked on a mainline or siding . . .

    I know GPS has gotten pretty precise over the years, but I don't think I'd trust it when you're dealing with a 12-foot track center between main and siding or - worse still - between high-speed double track.

  • Mudhen||

    If you go to the NTSB website you'll see the cause was not the signal system, but the crews failure to act. The engineer was found to have developed serious vision issues which he failed to disclose. From the black box on the engine, the engineer failed to react far enough in advance to stop. As for why the Conductor didn't react, well you'll have to use your imagination.
    Not surprisingly after costs, one of the biggest hold ups to PTC is the FCC. It seems that there needs to be 20,000+ radio towers installed and because of Federal law each site needs the ok from the local Native American tribes that they are not on a possible burial site. Of course these tribes do not have the ability to research and approve all these applications within the time limits the Feds have imposed for PTC.
    The real question on PTC is that it would never pass any reasonable cost/benefit analysis. The Chatsworth, CA accident that led was 25 lives vs a cost of $15B or more just doesn't make economic sense, but then again when has Congress ever worried about what something cost, especially if it's a private business picking up the tab.

  • LIFE.time.opertunity||

  • niobiumstudio||

    1.4 BILLION per life saved... Why not just make it a lottery - families are compensated 100 million dollars if a family member dies in a train crash and survivors given a million dollars for injury, even a scratch, during a crash. People would be much happier about that and it would be 1/15th the cost...

  • ||

    Positive train control is well suited for urban commuter rail with nearby electric infrastructure and communications and trains operating with train separation of a few minutes (like where this accident happened)

    It makes no sense to force a one size fits all solution from Croton to Poughkeepsie where the entire route is double tracked and trains are no more frequent than one every half hour.

    MTA has already implemented a simple but crude system to prevent this type of accident. To do it that fast implied it was an off the shelf solution, like the system used in the UK in rural areas. It has two transmitters in the track in different frequencies, the distance between them is based on the speed limit you want enforced. The device on the train is activated by the first signal, and if the train reaches the second before the required time, the train goes into emergency braking. It's like those white lines painted on interstates so aircraft can time your speed without radar.

    They also plan to install an Alerter system in the cabs which require the driver to prove he hasn't fallen asleep when running in push mode. They're also looking at the real root cause - shifting someone from the afternoon to getting up at 3 AM without adequate time to adjust their body clocks

  • optimusratiostultum||

    just curious does anyone know if engineers sit or stand? because a handy trick I learned in the army to stay awake is to simply stand up. Sure eventually you fall asleep standing up but that is only after more than a day without sleep.

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