A Necessary Response to The Spanish Train Disaster

In this Japanese semi-automatic train control system, all the 'driver' now does is push the two white buttons to start the train.
In this Japanese semi-automatic train control system, all the ‘driver’ now does is push the two white buttons to start the train.

You’ve doubtless heard of the appalling disaster in Spain this Wednesday when a high-speed train came off the rails and crashed, killing at least 80 and injuring 140 or so more; maybe you’ve also seen the security camera video of it coming off the rails and seen the pictures of the devastation that ensued.

Any transportation accident is of course a tragedy, but preventable ones are massively more regrettable.  We all accept that occasionally there will be an unexpected unpredictable set of random coincidences that result in one of those ‘one in a billion’ circumstances and consequent tragedy, but when we learn of an accident that is both enormous in scope and also totally preventable in nature, we must learn its bitter lesson and ensure it is not repeated.

In the case of the train crash, the train took the curve at 120mph, but the speed restriction on that part of the line was a mere 50 mph.  It doesn’t take great genius to understand that in just about any vehicle, if you take a bend at two and a half times the posted speed, you’re going to have problems.

So, we know that the train was going massively faster than it should have been, and we know that was the cause of the tragedy.  Until the drivers are interviewed, we don’t know why that was, but at this point, it seems hard to consider it as anything other than a deliberate act of criminally irresponsible driving, with an obvious and inevitable outcome.

There is a surprisingly simple solution to this situation :  Abolish drivers on trains.

Almost all the dwindling reasons that remain as justification for keeping drivers in cars and pilots in planes don’t apply to trains.  There is no steering to be done, no decisions to be made at intersections, no other traffic to watch out for.  Well, yes, occasionally there are trains misrouted onto the same stretch of track, but in such cases, by the time a human driver realizes that and responds, it is almost always way too late for anything to be done.

A human driver does nothing more than act as a biological auto-pilot, making almost no independent decisions while driving the train.  He doesn’t start the train until after the train’s conductor and the external signaling both tell him to go, and when he does then start the train, he follows simple procedures to accelerate at specified rates, and then, while driving the route, every inch of track has a known speed limit and every curve has an exact optimum speed, balancing out the forces from the curve’s camber, the train suspension, and the centrifugal force of turning.

When the driver approaches a station, he then follows a formulistic braking procedure to successively reduce the speed to certain levels at certain points, so that the train ends up coming to a stop at almost exactly the correct point on the platform.

In other words, everything he does is as specified by procedures and instructions.  The better the driver, the more closely he conforms to the requirements and specifications.  There is zero initiative and zero requirement for value judgment.  He is acting as a mindless automaton, and doing a job that could be done as well – or better – by exactly that, a mindless automaton.

Some people might say ‘Oh, but a human driver can compensate for running late’ but an automatic system can do that just as readily (and indeed, some of the automatic systems already controlling trains elsewhere in the world do exactly that).  Indeed, just about every argument in favor of retaining a human element in the cab of a train has already been anticipated and answered by the train automation systems out there.

So why not accept this reality for what it is, and replace the drivers.  Chances are you’ve been on a driverless train already – the trams at airports are usually driverless, and work perfectly well.  The London Underground now has many driverless trains, as do other passenger rail systems all around the world, varying from the Las Vegas monorail to Vancouver BC’s Skytrain network, which has the most miles of driverless train in North America, and of course BART in the Bay Area and MARTA in Atlanta.

Some of the automatic train systems still have a ‘driver’, but all he does is push a button for ‘close the doors’ then another button for ‘start the train’, then the driver can relax until the train has reached its next programmed stop whereupon the driver has to then push an ‘open the doors’ button (and sometimes he doesn’t even need to do that much).

Driverless trains and the automation used is discussed in this Wikipedia article.  It is mature and reliable.  The technology has been in use for over 40 years; isn’t it time to extend it still further?

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