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Lawmakers Should Delay Implementing Positive Train Control

Why this costly tool isn't the only answer to commuter train safety

Baruch Feigenbaum
May 3, 2012

Trains are among the safest form of transportation but on rare occasions when crashes occur, the death toll is often high. A tragic train crash in California in 2008, in which 25 people lost their lives, led to a renewed push for increasing the safety of trains. Unfortunately, the resultant Railroad Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA 2008) required the implementation of a technology (positive train control - or PTC) that is expected to cost in excess of $13 billion and may have no benefits. The current Surface Transportation Reauthorization Bill offers an opportunity to delay the implementation of PTC at least to 2020. Members of both the House and the Senate should seize the opportunity.

Railroads are one of the safest forms of transportation. The National Safety Council compared four modes of transport: airlines, passenger trains, buses, and light duty vehicles (includes passenger cars, light trucks, vans, and sports utility vehicles). In 2009 the passenger death rate in light duty vehicles was 0.53 per 100 million passenger-miles. The bus fatality rate was 0.04; the rate for trains is 0.02. Only airlines were safer at 0.01.

In the California train crash, a Metrolink commuter train collided with a Union Pacific freight locomotive killing 25 people. The crash was the worst U.S. train accident in 15 years. Federal investigators revealed that the train driver was sending and receiving text messages just before his commute train skipped a red light and hit the freight locomotive. Even before the final safety report was released, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) began pushing to mandate automated safety equipment for all large railway systems. According to Feinstein the accident occurred because of "resistance in the railroad community." Kitty Higgins of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) also began lobbying for positive train control less than 24 hours after the collision and before the full safety investigation began. Swept up in the emotion, Congress in 2008 failed to seriously consider any solution except PTC. The PTC bill passed October 16, 2008 with limited debate only a month after the crash.

Positive train control is one of several methods to improve railroad safety. While PTC can prevent accidents by using GPS, sensors, and other technology to stop trains remotely, the costs are astronomical. The Federal Railroad Adminstration (FRA) places the cost at more than $13 billion to install and maintain a nationwide class I PTC system. Consulting firm Oliver Wyden estimated that PTC has a 20 year benefit between $0-$400 million. Even if all $400 million in benefits are realized, the cost/benefit ratio range is $1 in benefits for every $20 spent on the system.

Although Congress failed to consider an alternative, there are several technologies that could prevent the most serious train crashes. Options include rerouting freight trains, reducing the speeds of trains to minimize the impact of collisions or implementing schedule changes to increase headways between trains. These solutions can be implemented with no direct costs and only the indirect time costs of slower trains and longer commutes. While these are not optimal long-term solutions, they are cost-effective immediate fixes.

There are several other PTC complications that leaders have not taken into account. Immediate implementation of PTC could impair safety. PTC is forecast to prevent only 4 percent of railway accidents and the $13 billion spent enacting the technology is money that cannot be spent on infrastructure upgrades and other safety improvements. Further, despite claims to the contrary PTC by itself will not improve track efficiency. Increasing the train frequency requires precision dispatching. While precision dispatching can be implemented, it is a separate technology and different issue than positive train control. Additionally, Current PTC systems will make train tracks less efficient. Today's systems do not estimate braking times accurately. As a result, these systems slow a train prematurely when compared with human control, reducing the number of trains that can fit on a section of track.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has studied PTC repeatedly. In 2005 the agency noted that a regulatory mandate for PTC system implementation [can] not be justified based on cost-benefit principals and direct safety benefits.

Why despite FRA's advice is positive train control mandatory? Advocates who had been pushing for the technology for 20 years saw an opening. At the same time, many members of the House and Senate were swept up in the emotion of the situation and failed to consider the cost/benefit ratio or alternative technologies.

Fortunately, four years later Congress has a chance to fix its mistake. The MAP-21 Surface Transportation bill that has passed the Senate extended the PTC implementation deadline until Dec. 31, 2018. The House bill should push for no implementation deadline and ensure that an implementation deadline is not set before the technology becomes cost-effective. In the meantime the FRA should study other technologies to determine if there is a long-term solution that is just as effective at a more reasonable price. Safety policy is too important to be decided by arbitrary deadlines.

Baruch Feigenbaum is a policy analyst at Reason Foundation.


Baruch Feigenbaum is Transportation Policy Analyst


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