Government, Media Push Costly New Safety System After Amtrak Derailment

Less flashy improvements would save more lives for far less money.


Amtrak derailment

Safety regulations are often geared toward preventing the last tragic headline, not the next loss of life. We may be about to do that again in the aftermath of December's Amtrak accident in Washington state, where—thanks to overspeeding—a train derailed, killing three.

Politicians and pundits are now demanding that the railroads step up their implementation of Positive Train Control (PTC), an expensive autopilot-like system that is designed to automatically slow down speeding trains.

On Tuesday, the Department of Transportation released a letter sent by Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to railroad executives, urging them to "greatly accelerate" their implementation of PTC. The Baltimore Sun echoed the idea in an unsigned editorial, claiming that "few safety enhancements are more overdue than Positive Train Control."

But while PTC may have prevented the last tragedy, it would do little to stop the vast majority of deaths caused by rail.

"What we're doing is we're letting the politicians decide where the railroads should spend their money based on what's visible in the news, rather than what really is the most cost-effective way of spending that money," says Randal O'Toole, a transportation policy expert at the Cato Institute.

The vast majority of rail fatalities result not from crashes that PTC might prevent but from people trespassing on tracks and from vehicles getting struck at the intersection of track and road. Of the 813 train deaths in 2016, only eight were the result of rail accidents, according to the Department of Transportation's statistics. That's compared to the 776 caused by trespassing or by vehicles on the tracks and another 29 "other incidents"—likely suicides.

"For a lot less money, we could do a lot more to stop trespassing, or improve grade crossings that would save a lot more lives," says O'Toole.

PTC does cost a lot of money. In 2008, Congress imposed a requirement that all railroads install PTC systems by 2015, a deadline later moved to 2018. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the agency responsible for implementing the rule, has put the national cost of compliance as high as $23.7 billion—roughly equivalent to all railroad infrastructure spending in 2017. According to the Association of American Railroads, it's the largest regulatory cost the FRA has ever imposed on the industry.

The FRA has pretty blunt about the efficacy of PTC, stating in a 2009 economic analysis that the costs of implementing the system "would far exceed the benefits."

O'Toole agrees, pointing out that adding crossing arms to both sides of a grade crossing and fencing off more tracks to prevent trespassing would be far less expensive and far easier to implement. To the degree that each dollar spent on PTC is a dollar not spent on other safety improvements, this renewed drive to implement the system could actually be a detriment to safety.

"We're letting the politicians decide where the railroads should spend their money based on what's visible in the news, rather than what really is the most cost-effective way of spending that money," says O'Toole. "I don't think politicians should be the ones to decide that."

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  1. “What we’re doing is we’re letting the politicians decide where the railroads should spend their money based on what’s visible in the news, rather than what really is the most cost-effective way of spending that money.”

    Railroads, unlike everything else politicians make decisions about.

  2. I think every train should proceed at no more than 15 mph with a flagman walking in front of it to warn cars that try to cross the tracks. And while regulators are at it, the national automobile speed limit should also be 15 mph. Too costly? Then I guess you don’t value the lives of the women and children who will be saved by these measures.

    1. I could see 25 or 35 mph as a ‘nice compromise,’ but hell, while we’re at it, MANY lives could be saved if speed limits were Personalized to be equal to the driver’s AGE.

      Think about it… the young kids keep killing themselves and others by speeding and us oldsters really would appreciate the time saved in getting places… after all, we’ve got less of it left!

      Logical, right?

    2. The main reason this would be an “expensive” solution is government involvment (see “health care”, “subprime mortgage”, “military contract”, “student loans”). PTC should be a very simple system. Use GPS to plot the train’s position and match it to a speed map that dictates the maximum allowed speed. If the train is exceeding that speed, slow it down. If GPS is not getting a signal, compute current approximate position by clocking the position based on speed/time until GPS can sync again. Couple hundred thousand to design and test, a couple hundred thousand to program route speed tables for the US, and less than $1K a copy to install. The actual cost of a GPS module, a microcontroller and a suitable ROM table, plus power supply and interface electronics would be under $50, but I’d be surprised if most trains didn’t already have a good portion of this equipment on board. It’s likely that most of them would only require an interface that allows speed control and software.

      There are about 27,000 locomotives in America, so total system cost should be under $5 million for every locomotive in the Country.

      As for crossing obstructions, the cost to install a laser grid (think “photo-electric cell”) would be rather minimal. That could be tied into a system that alerts the engineer, or even automatically slows the train. Again, the cost would be relatively low, but there being far more railroad crossings than trains, the cost for the system might be much higher.

      1. My friend’s car has a plastic voice that tells him “you are overspeed, slow down”. It comes standard with his vehicle. which costs somewhere under $30K new. At that price Amtrak could buy a bunch of these rigs, extract the GPS warning system, fit it to every passenger locomotive, and done. GM build the engines used in those locomotives, most of them, so why not have then toss in that system as part of the powerplant package?

        As to stupid proofing railroad crossings, in general this is not needed. People KNOW when not to cross, in most cases. The few that are not well enough signalled could use some upgrades. Trains cannot slow down quickly enough when there is a crossing obstruction. The light Talgo trains like the one in Tacoma’s crash can slow far more quickly, but a loaded hundred car freight? Forget it. I drive a lot, and the crossing guards/signals are over the iop complicated and expensive. Any motorists ignoring the modern ones perhaps needs to get a severe wakeup call. Harsh? Yes.. but WHY do government insist on “protecting” people from themselves? It doesn’t work anyway.

  3. But while PTC may have prevented the last tragedy, it would do little to stop the vast majority of deaths caused by rail.

    Curious wording, when two paragraphs later you say the vast majority of deaths are caused by “trespassing or by vehicles on the tracks”.

    We don’t typcially refer to deaths from car crashes as “caused by cars” or airplane disasters as “caused by flight”.

  4. We may be about to do that again in the aftermath of December’s Amtrak accident in Washington state, where?thanks to overspeeding?a train derailed, killing three.

    Well, they advertised it as a high-speed rail system. Apparently that has absolutely no meaning whatsoever.

    1. Yes, because high speed rail apparently means going 30 mph.

      But if you don’t include the magic words “high speed” in the sales pitch, you don’t get the bond measure passed.

  5. How costly is installing cruise control on a train system anyway? Numbers, anyone?

    1. I suspect ‘cruise control’ isn’t the best solution… remotely-controlled engine speed might…
      The tracks themselves should control the speed of the vehicles operating on ’em.
      If it’s a 30 mph curve, the track ahead of the curve should force the engine to slow to the safe speed. Letting the engineer holding the throttle be in full control is downright stupid!
      Even ATC tells the airline pilots how fast to go and clears them for altitude changes.

      1. remotely controlled engine speed? Nah. HOW can someone in a barn a thousand miles away KNOW absolutely how fast THIS train should be going? That engineer KNEW, or should have known, the speed limits on that setioin of track. They ARE well posted per protocol. I’ve seen them…. that stretch parallels I 5 for several miles before that curve. Otherwise, why even have engineers?And why pay them the big bux to drive big trains? SHE was distracted…. probably from th crowd of “extras” that were most likey in the cab enjoying the special proviledge of being on the inaugural run of that high speed light rail train. Jawing and chatting and playing lookie lou out the windows in the soft early morning light along the Sound…. train, what train? Ain’t we SPESHUL being aboard today?
        She should be charged with negilgent homicide. Had I been that distracted driving the freeway a hundred feet to the east of that line, and my distraction led proximally and causally to a crash that killed three, I’d be in the hoosegow for feloy manslaughter… and rightly so. She KNEW the train was overspeed.. she is heard to say so on the videorecording from the camera facing rearward in the cab. She did nothing about it….. NOTHING. WHY does she have that ticket in her pocket? Pull it.

  6. 23 billion for 8 lives saved per year – that sounds reasonable. I mean, as long as you’re talking about spending somebody else’s money. Personally, I’d put the value of my life at 40 gazillion dollars if you’re talking about somebody else’s money. My money? I’m carrying a policy that costs me about $6500 per year, that’s all my life’s worth in my own personal dollars.

  7. The author’s conclusions are absolutely right, but the problem of trespassing (and suicide) is even worse than stated in the article.

    The author makes a factual error in paragraph 6, which starts “The vast majority?” It is a mistake that anyone can make, because the FRA (who provides the data to the Department of Transportation) intentionally under-reports total fatalities (by leaving out suicides entirely). You have to know how the FRA reports to figure this out:

    As of 1-4-2018, the FRA reports 774 “Total Fatalities”on their website (link below). Previously, they must have reported 813 to the DOT because that’s the number the author picked up. Did those 39 people come back to life? No. Initially classified as “trespassers” (whose deaths count towards the total), they were locally judged to be suicides, which takes them off the trespasser total (and off the reported “total”).
    You see, “total” does not mean “all” in FRA-speak.

  8. Topel comment- continued:

    The “real” total (not the reported “total”) is 1,029 deaths, including 255 suicides, rather than 774 or 813. The adjusted under-counting of deaths is 255/774 or 33%. To me, that is significant. (Most of the “other” deaths, supposed by the author to be suicides are instead mostly employees and contractors). Please see…..fault.aspx
    And then run Query 4.11 “Suicide Casualties?.”. Change the “Start Year” to “2011” (It defaults to 2017). Remember that these deaths ARE NOT reported by the FRA to DOT, Operation Lifesaver, news publications, etc.
    Also, before 2011, the FRA didn’t even require the railroads to report to the FRA a suicide death. If found to be suicide, “it didn’t even happen”.

    The money spent on PTC would have been better spent on the areas where most people die (Pedestrians 75% of fatalities and Crossings 20%, rather than the 5% that PTC is trying to save).

    1. People KNOW they are tresspassing when walking along the tracks, etc. Further there is NO WAY to elimitate suicides. If someone is determined to “end it all”, and a railroad is not readily accessible, there are many other ways. What, would you rather have them walk the 75 feet from that track over to the southbound lanes of I 5 and dart into traffic? NO THANKS. Human against train, the human loses every time. And the train could continue on as if nothing happened.. because, from the standpount of physics, nothing did. Sort of like the moth on your windscreen. Splat. End of story. Barely makes a dent in the nose of the locomotive.
      On the other hand, human against car, the human almost always loses, but the car loses a lot too. And once the first car is hit, most drivers panic, or are unable to control the vehicle due to damage to it, and thus veer off, or whateve,r and hit or are hit by other vehicles. Sort of like when a car hits a deer…. many times it bounces off, dead, or limps off to die in the woods. But a goodly number of the time, the car veers off the road, spins and crashes into a second car, makes someone else take dangerous evasive action.. and often creates a multi car pileup.

      1. You want more eedjuts darting out onto the freeway and seriously hurting others, or would it be better to have those suicides continue using the trains? How many train wrecks have been directly caused by human suicides? Suicide numbers NEED to be excluded from various “special causes” of death. Many anti gun wackos cite gun suicides as part of “the gun problem”. Not a valid statistic. Suicides are suicides, no matter the means, and the means used by suicides oughtn’t be included with other tallies of that same means. Not valid.

  9. Almost certainly PTC would increase rail deaths by forcing railroads to forego other maintenance and safety activities that directly impact deaths. Federal mandates for PTC capabilities have driven up costs tremendously and resulted in something almost unworkable. My father designed an early PTC system for the Alaska Railroad that would have worked for a small fraction of the cost of what is now on the table. Then the Alaska Railroad got federal funding for his project and hired outside consultants to do it. They spent millions and millions of dollars and got nothing at all in the end, but if they’d stuck with my father’s design, they would have had a 90% solution for about 5% of the cost. My father ? and other railroad engineers I know ? all hate PTC because it makes things worse.

  10. Way to distract from the issue! Keeping people from trespassing on tracks isn’t going to do anything for the safety of people on the trains. Plus, you can say that those who trespass deserve to get run over, while people who ride trains don’t expect to get injured in the process.

    1. To Robert:
      “you can say that people who trespass deserve to get run over”? Really? If you investigate rail accidents, (especially rail crossing accidents), you’ll see that almost all are due to victim error. Does that mean we shouldnt have safety measures? And, BTW, according to FRA statistics 2 out of 3 trespassers DO NOT “expect to get injured in the process”, just like passengers.

      1. most railroad tressspassers conduct themselves safely and cause no harm to anyone. However, those folks aren’t part of the death sttatistics. And should not be.. no one died. On the other hand, tresspassers who decide to suicide by getting hit by the train cause harm to no one but themselves, and if they are determined to kill themselves, new fencing, electronic gizmoes, etc, won’t stop them from killing themselves. Maybe a few woul dnot get killed… by a train. But then, there are always bridges, ships, barges, freeways, high cliffs, pills, serious overdose of liquor, knives, guns, ropes… anyone determind to end their life will do so. Fences, etc, won’t stop a determined suicidal individual. Why spend billions for no gain?

        1. I’m trying to determine if I’m more offended by your ignorance or your selfishness. Do some research on suicide and you’ll see there is a surprising number of people for whom suicide ideation is transitory. Specifically related to rail suicide, the only study I’ve seen which followed up on attempted suicide by train found that out of thirteen people who were stopped from suicide by train, only three went on in the following ten years to kill themselves, and only one of them by train. (Yes, this is a small sample, but think of how difficult such a study would be to find such specific respondents over such a long period).
          It is good for society that people with your perspective on suicide are dying out. I hope that you do not reproduce.

  11. gates on both sides of the roadway on both sides of the rail crossing? At what cost? WHY cannot drivers who violate laws about crossing tracks when gates are down be expected to endure the heavy consequences when they grt stupid AND illegal and cross anyway? I now see rows of pylons where the already illegal to cross double line in the centre is. WHY? Are we to all be wrapped in cocoons and rendered inert to any harm, even that of our own stupidity?

    As to this train control syste,…. WHY cannot the railroas simply hire crewmen who will remain alert and responsive? That engineer must have been asleep a the switches. Or distraced by all the ectra celebrities in the cab at the time of the crash. Do that on the bridge of a ship, someone gets a serious reprimand. She might as well have been in a bunk, like the captain was when his ship ran up on the rocks up in Alaska. WHY pay such incompetents their outrageous salaries AND pensions? Hire competent people. Oh, and dump the unions that protect them in their incompetence. She should be charged with criminal negilgence and negligent homicide. Anyone driving on the freeway and behaving like that, who kills three people, certainly would be.

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