PTC or meds for Grandma?

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Monday, October 3, 2016

If it’s a safer railroad environment you want—as we do—the signs are not good.

Let’s start with Positive Train Control (PTC). Not so long after Congress voted in 2008 to mandate it, I admit I was skeptical. I questioned the huge amount of private capital required per life saved and I criticized Congress for not giving railroads a life preserver of their own in the form of tax credits. Well, I’m entitled to change my mind, and I have. We have witnessed terrible tragedies the past 18 months, most wrenching the overturning of Amtrak’s train near North Philadelphia and the violent head-on collision of opposing BNSF freight trains (on double track, no less) in the Texas Panhandle. Now, the bumper-post disaster at New Jersey Transit’s riverside station in Hoboken.

So let’s start by asking ourselves what saves the most lives: ensuring the safety of freight trains or that of passenger trains? I vote for passenger trains. The spectacle we now have is that the freight railroads have spent almost $7 billion of their dollars diligently inventing and implementing PTC technology, while at least three of the nation’s largest commuter-train railroads haven’t really done a damn thing. I’ll stop here to credit Amtrak with implementing its version of Positive Train Control on its own Northeast Corridor trackage, and between Philadelphia and Harrisburg. And I’ll tip my hat to the politicians in California who provided the funds for Metrolink in Los Angeles to do the same—Metrolink, of course, being the entity whose own disaster prodded Congress to act in the first place eight years ago.

But what of Metra in Chicago, Jersey Transit, and Metro-North Railroad in New York and Connecticut? As I said, not really a damn thing. Illinois is broke, and New Jersey close to it. New York and Connecticut are stressed out as well. And appropriating scarce capital dollars for huge technical projects that neither politicians nor journalists can explain clearly is something of a non-starter when you’re competing against all the other uses of public dollars. Ask the average Joe or Jane in Newark or New Haven or Cicero: Do you want PTC or more cops and more meds for grandma? Your choice. Guess how they’ll reply?

Illinois has relied for two years on stopgap budgets because of political deadlock between its Republican governor and Democratic legislature, relying on its “rainy day fund” to fill the gas tanks of state police cars and other vital functions. With the state’s credit rating in the basement, Metra, the Chicago region’s commuter agency, cannot afford to buy new cars to meet rising demand and to replace its aging fleet. In light of this, there’s not much money available for Positive Train Control. In fact, according to CBS News, after eight years Metra has invested only $95 million of a required $350-400 million to put PTC in place. Will Metra be ready by the new deadline of 2018? I doubt it.

I read that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie says PTC will be functional on Jersey Transit by then. Governor, I’d like to make a bet with you. Almost nothing has been done except spend seed money. Instead, the state uses its political muscle to get an exemption from the FRA for putting PTC in its Hoboken station. In light of what’s happened, that’s disgusting.

That brings us to Metro North, the pet toy of senators Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Charles Schumer of New York, themselves the most self-important defenders of railroad safety. The overturning of a Metro-North train in December 2013 at Spuyten Duyvil, N.Y., that killed four passengers and injured dozens more would have been prevented by PTC (the engineer dozed off). I don’t recall either senator calling for a housecleaning of parent agency Metropolitan Transit Authority for not having even started then to implement PTC. And if they had, MTA would simply have turned up its hands and pleaded poverty. It finally resorted in 2015 to getting a $1 billion low-interest loan from the FRA to obtain the capital the state legislatures wouldn’t provide. Still, as recently as August, the FRA said Metro-North had done little to put PTC in place or to train affected employees.

Now let’s turn to the other big railroad safety measure pending, a requirement by Federal Railroad Administration that dictates all trains be staffed by an engineer and conductor in their locomotives. Those cynics among us attribute this as a political favor to operating unions in the face of pressure by Class I railroads to run trains with only the engineer on board.

Let’s leave aside the pros and cons of the proposed reg. Again, ask yourself: Are we most concerned with protecting freight trains or passenger trains? As far as the public is concerned, passenger trains, of course. And we all know what will happen once FRA puts this reg in place. The commuter railroads and Amtrak will all threaten (perhaps legitimately) to go out of business unless exempted from the two-person rule. All these entities are funded by Congress and legislatures, and it’s safe to say all of them will get exemptions from the regulator because of high jingo (excuse my cop phrase).

So this is where we stand. PTC will be achieved as Congress dictated and as we all want (most of us, anyway). It has been a messy and politicized process, in which the people most in need of PTC’s protection will be the last to get it. And the two-person rule, if ever imposed and upheld in the inevitable lawsuit, will be enforced mainly on railroad properties that need it the least, if at all. I mean, isn't this why we are adopting PTC, to correct human error in the locomotive?—Fred W. Frailey

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