Commentary

Why Not Autonomous Trains

Industry and government are advocating the safety benefits of autonomous and connected vehicles but ignoring potential benefits of autonomous trains

Hardly a day goes by that there isn’t a major media piece about the development of autonomous vehicles. Ten years ago such speculation was for futurists and dreamers. Yet the first self-driving cars might be available to the public by 2020. While much of the media attention has centered on Google’s efforts to develop an autonomous vehicle, many of the major automobile companies and their suppliers—Audi, Mercedes Nissan, Bosch and Delphi Automotive—are actively developing autonomous vehicles. In 2004, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration (DARPA) held its first Grand Challenge, a 150-mile automated vehicle race across the Mojave Desert. Fourteen autonomous vehicles participated, but none finished. The Carnegie Mellon University vehicle won the competition by going a little over 7 miles.

There are substantial challenges to the development of autonomous vehicles including the technology itself. Safety is one of the biggest issues. Safety is paramount for the users inside the vehicles and those outside, including other vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists. Can an autonomous vehicle detect children running into the street to retrieve an errant baseball? Can it respond as quickly as a human? And what happens if the system, for whatever reason, fails? There are a number of issues that must to be resolved before autonomous vehicles can be rolled out including operational challenges such as snow, security issues and software hacking. Further, legal mandates must be considered such as steering wheel placement and liability, including insurance coverage.

These issues have not deterred Google, Apple and Microsoft from pursuing automated cars. Yet freight operators do not seem interested in pursuing autonomous trains. Autonomous trains would have some of the same challenges as automated vehicles. Since autonomous vehicle manufacturers were not deterred by roadway challenges, autonomous train operators should not be deterred by railway challenges.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is planning for autonomous vehicles. The Obama Administration’s FY ‘17 budget includes $200 million – and nearly $3.9 billion over 10 years – for “pilot deployments of safe and climate-smart autonomous vehicles to create better, faster, cleaner urban and corridor transportation networks.” This program “would fund large-scale deployment pilots to test connected vehicle systems in designated corridors throughout the country and work with industry to ensure a common multi-state interoperability framework for connected and autonomous vehicles.”

Mark Rosekind, the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which would oversee the pilot deployments, has said his agency and the federal Department of Transportation “are using all the tools we have available to advance what’s seen as a revolution in technology. Our goal is to hasten this revolution.”

While NHTSA is looking to the future to “hasten the revolution,” the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is proposing to turn back the clock and impose train crew staffing regulations. These would mandate that most freight trains have two people on them, with the burden on the freight railroad to show it can operate safely with one.

Why is FRA proposing manning requirements? In the last several years, especially as the railroads began moving more oil, there has been a number of derailments, several of which has been devastating in terms of deaths and human injuries as well as property damage. The worst accident was the 2013 Lac Megantic derailment in Quebec where the engineer failed to properly secure the train after parking it for the evening. Forty-seven people died in the explosion. Thirty buildings were destroyed and all but three buildings in the town had to be demolished because of petroleum contamination. Another smaller but still tragic oil train accident occurred in Casselton, ND.

These accidents obscure the excellent safety record of freight railroads. According to the 2015 report of the Association of American Railroads, in 2014, the railroads originated over 30 million carloads, weighing over 1.8 billion tons, moving those carloads over 37 billion miles, or 518 million train-miles. Its accidents per-million train-miles have decreased from 11.43 in 1980, the year the Staggers Rail Act was enacted, which gave the railroads greater economic freedom, to 4.13 in 2000, and 2.45 in 2013, a decrease of 79 percent. While the railroads’ performance is not perfect, these statistics shed light on how many carloads the railroads move safely, putting into perspective the small number of accidents that includes collisions and derailments. Moving oil by rail is safer than moving it by truck. Furthermore, since these rail accidents, both the FRA and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration have promulgated regulations with respect to both the operation of oil trains as well as the tank cars in which oil is transported.

In 2008, after a deadly accident in Chatsworth, CA Congress mandated the installation of Positive Train Control (PTC) on all tracks used by passenger trains or used to carry toxic-by-inhalation products. PTC technology uses a combination of satellite and computer technology to determine the location and control the operation of the train, and will override the train engineer if the train exceeds the speed restriction or operating authority.

Congress’ PTC mandate forced FRA to promulgate regulations, despite FRA’s previous conclusion that PTC could not be justified. Federal law requires FRA to conduct a vigorous cost-benefit analysis before mandating certain policies. Congress, not constrained by cost-benefit analyses, mandated the technology that the freight railroads use. The industry maintains that the $11 billion cost far exceeds the safety benefits.

PTC allows the railroads to know where the trains are and to control them remotely. The railroads are already using Remote Control Locomotives (RCL) technology in yards where workers remotely control locomotives. The rail industry should unlock the greater benefits that these technologies can provide–both safety and non-safety–by moving to autonomous trains. Indeed, one of the original developers of PTC, Steve Ditmeyer, acknowledges that with PTC, “autonomous trains are technically feasible.”

Technological hurdles to autonomous trains exist. But as discussed above, the technological capability is developing rapidly with PTC and RCL. Early operation of autonomous trains will be similar to early operation of autonomous vehicles; for autonomous vehicles this includes operation alongside both manually-controlled vehicles and autonomous vehicles. For trains this will initially include: operation with manually-controlled trains, safety issues at grade crossings, drivers failing to stop, and unresponsive signals. Both autonomous trains and vehicles will have to respond to pedestrians crossing the respective right-of-way, properly or improperly. Autonomous vehicles are overcoming many of these challenges and there is no reason that autonomous trains cannot overcome these obstacles as well.

Another hurdle for the major freight railroads is the need to revise collective bargaining agreements. Revising the agreements will not be easy as autonomous trains will result in layoffs. However, there will be a demand for people to install and maintain the technology for the operation of autonomous trains. The manning issue has proven to be the most contentious issue at the bargaining table and in government regulation. In recent years, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen refused to bargain with the railroads about the use of the RCL technology. As a result, the railroads went to the Sheet Metal, Air and Rail Transportation Union and entered into an agreement allowing the use of the technology. But in 2014, the same union on the BNSF railroad voted down an agreement to revise the collective bargaining agreement to have only one person on the train operating on tracks where there is PTC.

Finally, if FRA promulgates its proposed manning requirements, it would become the third hurdle. When autonomous train technology is ready for deployment and when the collective bargaining agreements are revised to allow for their operation, federal regulations shouldn’t stand in the way of its use. Such regulations will chill the development of the technology, despite plans to repeal them in the future. Promulgating such regulations is little more than a transparent exercise to lock in the status quo and raise the cost of eliminating such regulations in the future, using government regulation as leverage.

The FRA should align itself with NHTSA and become part of the solution and not the problem. There are significant public policy issues that will need to be addressed to gain the requisite public confidence for facilitating the operation of autonomous trains. Technology cannot and will not be stopped. This is the time for management and labor to collectively resolve the fallout of such technological changes.

Similar to NHTSA, FRA needs to begin to see autonomous trains as a means to safer and more productive train operations. “Automated vehicles open up possibilities for saving lives, saving time and saving fuel,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in January at the North American International Auto Show. So why not autonomous trains?

William Newman is Senior Advisor to HC Project Advisors in Washington, DC. He is a former executive of Conrail.

William B. Newman, Jr., is Senior Advisor to HC Project Advisors in Washington, DC. He was a former executive of Conrail, and worked on Conrail's successful sale by the federal government. Conrail was sold in an initial public offering in 1987, then the largest initial public offering in history.