The idiocy of locomotive cameras

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Thursday, May 28, 2015

When a company supported by the public trough is caught up in a disaster, the urge to do something dramatic—anything, so as not to just stand there—is understandably strong. So it is that Amtrak has bowed to two U.S. Senate scolds and the National Transportation Safety Board and said it will install inward-facing cameras in the cabs of its 70 new electric locomotives used in the Northeast Corridor.

Said Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.): “Inward-facing cameras, with the right privacy protections for employees, are a critical way to make our railroads safer.” Said Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.): “These cameras will make a significant difference for the safety of rail passengers, and will provide additional information that can be used to improve safety and prevent future tragedies.” These two birds are the ones who pressured former Federal Railroad Administration honcho Joe Szabo last year into announcing he would initiate a rulemaking to require these cameras in all locomotives—this after a Metro-North Railroad commuter train overturned on a sharp curve north of New York City. Apparently, the White House Office of Management and Budget deep-sixed that idea as not being cost effective, because it has disappeared without a trace.

Anyone who thinks inward-facing cameras will make railroads safer is delusional. All they will do is make the job of railroad officials and accident investigators easier after an accident. They won’t make an exhausted engineer stay awake. They won’t stop disruptive behavior in the cab. They won’t do anything to anyone before an accident occurs.

That’s because these cameras are merely digital tape recorders. They cannot be viewed real time, but must be downloaded. All this does is make the work of supervising engineers (road foremen of engines) more miserable. They will have to fast-forward tapes for evidence of eyelids drooping, one recording after another, all day. Bless them if they resign and return to engineer status. I certainly would.

Meanwhile, for all this, the railroad is not one whit safer. Positive train control will make railroads safer—would have prevented the Metro-North and Philadelphia accidents, in fact. Inward-facing cameras will have no effect whatever, other than to increase Amtrak’s operating deficit by tens of millions of dollars.—Fred W. Frailey

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