TIFFS: Rail’s inability to meet 2015 safety system deadline could mean far worse air

Number 14 in the Transport-in-a-Fine-Fix Series.

The reality is that U.S. railroads will not be able to have a safety system known as positive train control (PTC) completely installed and operational on between 70,000 and 80,000 route-miles of track by this coming Dec. 31st, and that could mean a potential industry shutdown. It appears as though rail operators are prepared to stop running freight trains hauling hazardous cargo and/or trains carrying passengers instead of operating them and therefore running the risk of their being non-compliant and thus jeopardizing public safety in doing so.

Diesel-smoke[1]If a complete or even a partial stoppage is allowed then what would have normally, typically moved over the rails could end up traveling via public roadways. That increased traffic can mean only one thing: poorer air quality.

An installation deadline of Dec. 31, 2015 was imposed. This was in direct response to a deadly head-on collision involving a Metrolink passenger and a Union Pacific freight train near the town of Chatsworth, California on Sept. 12, 2008 in which 25 persons tragically lost their lives (the engineer of the involved Metrolink train included), while more than 130 people in all sustained injuries of varying severity. It was a tragedy that many claimed did not need to happen and could have likely been prevented with the PTC safety technology had it been installed and operational on the rail line where this collision took place.

In case anyone is inclined to believe railroads don’t do their part to help the environment and to facilitate improved air quality, think again. The average trainload can remove as many as 280 or more truckloads of freight from the nation’s highways; the equivalent of taking 1,100 automobiles off the road. That’s no small amount.

So, will Congress intervene and grant a deadline extension for the roll out of PTC, whether it is in three, four or five years, or will the current deadline stand? If the current deadline does stand, will railroads curtail the bulk of their operations as a goodly proportion of such are preparing to do in which case highways will, at once, experience exponential growth in over-the-road traffic that will further cause a boost in air-pollutant emissions coming from the transportation sector? Or, will the United States government wrest control of railroad operations from private industry concerns because it may feel its hand is forced or that such a move would be in the public’s best interest? Or, will an entirely different resolution be in the offing which seeks to provide the level of safety demanded while at the same time allow railroads the flexibility to meet requirements without the cloud of the Dec. 31, 2015 schedule deadline looming overhead which, could, over the short-, medium- and long-hauls enable railroads to improve bottom lines? That last approach, no doubt, presupposes to be the best of all worlds.

For the record, the Pennsylvania Railroad in the 1950s employed a system that, in the unlikely event that a locomotive engineer failed to respond appropriately or at all to a restrictive condition (such as that of an occupied track ahead) on the railroad track upon which said train was moving, the then errant train would, after a period of six seconds through automatic processes, either be sufficiently slowed or brought to a complete stop, that is, depending upon the restrictive condition present. Perhaps it was the expense of maintaining this system (where in use) that resulted in its discontinuance/dismantling on the Pennsylvania Railroad and/or preventing its across-the-board use.

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