Lawmakers Should Delay Mandatory Implementation of Positive Train Control

My latest Commentary details the problems with mandating Positive Train Control (PTC) by 2015. While safety is important, PTC is not the best immediate solution. First, it fails the Federal Railroad Administration’s cost/benefit analysis. Second, there are cheaper solutions that will prevent the most serious crashes. Third, current technology reduces the number of trains that can travel on a stretch of track and increases the length of trips. Finally, the mandate may worsen safety by forcing railroads to divert money from routine to track maintenance to implementation of a PTC system.

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 PTC that is expected to cost in excess of $13 billion and may have no benefits.

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 commuter 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 Association (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.

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.

The full Commentary is available here.