Joe Szabo's yada yada yada problem

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Google invaded my turf of Washington, D.C., this week with its self-driving car. DC traffic is the ultimate test of automated driving. If Google’s sensor-topped creation can navigate the tortuous traffic of this town, it can succeed anywhere. Google’s Chris Urmson, director of this project, told Politico’s Jessica Meyers: “We still have lots of problems to solve. But thousands of situations on city streets that would have stumped us two years ago can now be navigated autonomously.”

In case you haven’t realized it, this is the future. I confess I can’t quite trust a driverless vehicle to get me from suburban Virginia to Union Station in Washington with my bones still unbroken, my skin unspeered by foreign objects, and the car’s sheet metal uncrinkled by collisions. But from what I read, it’s not that hard to do, and several automobile makers are feverishly working on this, in addition to Google. An AAA official noticed Google’s Lexus RX 450H on his way to work yesterday. He told Politico: “They took it on [Capitol] Hill. If you ever want to avoid a crash or fender bender, this is the place to avoid going.”

When automation takes the driving out of driving a car, then it can surely do the same for the trucking business. Imagine, please, what this will do the economics of truck transportation. It’s already happening with airlines. Did you know that most airport landings are fully automated operations? In fact, it’s when you take control of a landing away from a computer that you invite disaster. Just such a scenario caused the South Korean jetliner coming into San Francisco International last July to crash, killing three people and injuring 181 others. The Wall Street Journal's Holman W. Jenkins Jr. predicts that "someday, all planes will be drones," with a pilot aboard to comfort the passengers, because in this manner we'll eliminate the possibility of human error. We humans can be our own worst enemies.

What’s this got to do with railroads, you may be wondering? I’m getting there. Railroads, like it or not, are spending billions on positive train control, a technology that will eliminate the vast majority of human errors that cause trains to collide or derail. If a train doesn’t slow down approaching a red signal or even a temporary slow order, PTC will step in and apply the brakes. Going past a red signal without permission will be theoretically impossible. PTC itself won’t make possible engineerless trains. But it’s a big step toward that, or something much like it. Railroads are beginning to understand this, too. It’s no secret that, as a start, they want collective bargaining agreements that require only an engineer, and not a conductor, on over-the-road trains. Many short lines and regional railroads, in fact, have negotiated such agreements with the United Transportation Union and Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

Now, enter Joe Szabo, administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration. He has vowed to propose a rule this summer that would not just shut the door on engineerless trains but require two people in the locomotive cab of most mainline freight and passenger trains. What an interesting idea. Let’s examine it.

First, as Frank N. Wilner of Railway Age has pointed out, there’s not a scintilla of evidence that this would improve the already admirable safety record of railroads — none whatever. Even the National Transportation Safety Board doesn’t oppose one-person crews once PTC is in place. I can assure you that Amtrak and the commuter railroads, which almost always have but one person aboard locomotives, are totally opposed to this proposal because it would balloon their losses. But guess what? Szabo’s FRA is holding out the prospect of exceptions for such operations. Gosh, how politically convenient! The trains that carry all of the people, as opposed to the freight, would still have just an engineer in the cab. But isn’t this rule supposed to save lives? To follow FRA's logic, this rule still puts us all at risk.

I don’t get it, and you probably don’t, either. So why is this happening? Apparently it’s happening because Joe Szabo wants it to. First, his FRA established a Railroad Safety Advisory Committee working group on crew size. This labor-management group was supposed to recommend two-person crews in locomotives but did not. So FRA decided to propose the rule anyway. As Szabo explained in a press release: “We believe that safety is enhanced with the use of a multiple person crew—safety dictates that you never allow a single point of failure. Ensuring that trains are adequately staffed for the type of service operated is critically important to ensure safety redundancy.” I read that and say to myself, yada yada yada, sound without substance.

Here’s some substance: Joe was once a railroad conductor (Illinois Central), then mayor of Riverdale, Ill., Illinois legislative director of the UTU and employed in UTU’s Washington office before being appointed to the FRA job by President Obama in 2009. I am not accusing him of bias toward his former employer, the UTU, and against railroads, although on the face of it you would be right to be suspicious. I am suggesting — predicting, actually — that unless FRA comes forth with some solid justification for this rule and not just more yada yada yada, that the railroad industry will have an easy time getting the rule thrown out by the courts, because it will have no substance behind it.

This should be fun to watch. On the one hand, Google and the automakers point the way to driverless cars and trucks. On the other, FRA points the way to two people in every locomotive, except when it is politically inconvenient. Trucking costs go down, railroad costs stay the same or go up. In the end, would the two-person rule create more unionized railroad jobs or destroy them? We all know the answer to that. — Fred W. Frailey

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