Amtrak’s Dangerous Game

Four people died in this Amtrak crash in December. PTC would probably have prevented the crash.

Something that distinguishes much of the United States from most other countries is that whenever a problem presents itself, there’s a rush to solve it either with money or technology, even when the underlying problem has little to do with the lack of either.

A good current example of this is how Amtrak and rail commentators in general have decided to make the lack of “Positive Train Control” (PTC) technology the scapegoat for the rush of recent Amtrak accidents.

Some people might wonder how it is that after 150+ years of generally satisfactory railroad operations, we can no longer rely on well-trained engineers and instead now need technology.  Others might observe that although PTC reduces risks, it doesn’t eliminate them, and so while beneficial, needs to be considered as part of a broader approach to optimizing operational safety.

Positive Train Control basically does much of the engineer’s job for him, automatically, but does not make accidents impossible.  While it will ensure that trains don’t speed, and that they always brake in time for speed restrictions and tight corners, it won’t stop derailments caused by track defects, grade crossing collisions, or a number of other problems.  Indeed, Federal Railroad Administration studies have twice suggested that the cost of operating a PTC system will be greater than the value of accidents prevented.

PTC also tends to automatically assume a ‘worst case scenario’ which means that fewer trains can operate on a given line, and will operate at slower speeds – both issues of concern to the increasingly congested rail lines in the US, and the time-sensitive nature of freight operations.  There have been other systems deployed to a greater or lesser extent already that address many of the vulnerabilities that PTC can also help with, but which do so at considerably lower cost and operational inconvenience.

We say this not to argue against PTC, but merely to point out that it is not a universal panacea, and not without tradeoffs.  It doesn’t solve all risks, and it has a very high cost which reduces its benefits to a point where they become insignificant.  More safety is always good, but there comes a point where the smallest remaining risks become impossible to resolve, and other risks in totally different parts of our lives deserve higher priority focus.

Nevertheless, in 1990 the NTSB called for the implementation of PTC, citing it among its “Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements”.  Congress acted with its usual alacrity, and a mere 18 years later, in 2008, mandated the deployment of PTC, with the deadline for its operation being generously delayed until the end of 2015.

Seven years later, as the 2015 deadline approached, most railroads had yet to have fully PTC enabled operations, and it does seem that some of the railroads were not giving this the priority needed to ensure its timely implementation.  You’d think the appropriate thing to do then would be to halt all non-compliant railroad operations until PTC was enabled, but instead Congress gave another three years to the railroads, now allowing them until the end of this year (2018) to get PTC operational.

The railroads continue to complain that even this extension will not be sufficient and are asking for another extension until 2020.  They seek to avoid the cost of establishing their PTC systems, and the reduced productivity of their railroads that would then follow.  Congress is considering this request, and is also proposing to offer a sweetener to the railroads in the form of a $2.5 billion cash grant to help cover the costs of establishing the PTC system.

And what of Amtrak?  It has been suggested that over the 50 years of Amtrak’s existence, some 150 crashes could have been prevented, and 300 lives saved.  That is a tangible benefit, albeit one with a cost in the order of $10 billion to establish and many more billions to have operated.  Is it really appropriate to spend $50 million or thereabouts to save each life on trains, when there are other measures in other parts of our lives where lives could be saved for $5 million each?  When we lose 37,000 people to car crashes every year, should we really be obsessing over an average of 6 lives lost in train crashes each year?

Amtrak doesn’t own much of the track that its trains run on, and so it is keen to see the freight railroads install PTC because it perhaps (somewhat unrealistically) hopes that such installation would result in little or no extra cost to itself.  Definitely, if PTC is provided for free, it is a very positive enhancement.

And so, here comes Amtrak’s dangerous threat.  It has threatened to stop operating trains on tracks that don’t have PTC operating by the end of this year.

The danger in this threat is that it threatens to gut Amtrak’s route network.  The freight railroads generally dislike allowing Amtrak trains to run over their rails, because it disrupts their freight movements and complicates their lives.  They would love to see Amtrak go away.

Also, the routes that Amtrak would likely close are its long-distance loss-making routes, the very routes that President Trump’s administration is now observing pointedly cause Amtrak so much financial grief, while providing so little benefit to the nation in return.

President Trump has called for a reduction in Amtrak’s subsidy for 2019, reducing it from $1.2 billion in this year to $538 million, and reducing the separate grant to the Northeast Corridor from $328 million to $200 million.  Trump had called for cuts for this year too, but Congress did not agree.

Most of these cuts would be to the subsidies for Amtrak’s long distance routes.  These routes carry only 4.7 million of Amtrak’s nearly 32 million total passengers each year, but incur operating losses of over $500 million – a loss of over $106 per passenger carried.

To put that figure of 4.7 million passengers a year into perspective, each day, almost 2.7 million passengers take airplane flights in the US.  That is almost one billion a year.  Amtrak’s long distance traffic is less than half of one percent of the air traffic.

So, the freight railroads want to be rid of Amtrak, the administration wishes to halve its Amtrak subsidy, the freight railroads want more time to implement PTC, and Amtrak threatens to suspend operations on non-PTC managed track.  It would seem that the win-win solution for both the administration and the freight railroads is to extend the PTC implementation deadline and watch Amtrak self-immolate.

A dangerous strategy on Amtrak’s part indeed.

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