Railroad Safety: It's Always About the Money

The U.S. Congress recently granted the railroads a 3 year extension in which to install positive train control technology. This technology prevents trains from traveling at excessive speeds and prevent trains from colliding due to human error. The requirement for positive train control was enacted by Congress in 2008 and gave railroad companies until December 31, 2015 to install the technology on 60,000 miles of track. The railroad lobby persuaded Congress to grant an extension by claiming it could not meet the deadline due to expense, etc. Millions were spent in lobbying Congress and in campaign contributors. 

    A New York Times article on November 4, 2015 explains that this technology is not new. The idea for the technology has actually been around since 1981 and was in active testing up until 1993 when managers decided the expense outweighed the benefits. The technology worked. It was just a simple business calculation of the cost of implementation versus the cost of lives, and the cost of lives was less. 

    The National Transportation Safety Board estimates that since 2004, 77 deaths and more than 1,400 injuries would have been prevented by the technology. The former Chairman of that Board said: “We would have a much safer railroad system today if the railroad companies had agreed to develop the system.” These words are kind compared to those of Richard M. Bressler, the former Chairman of the Burlington Northern and the originator of the idea. He said: “It’s appalling that things are still done so haphazardly. I think it’s border-line criminal. If a system like the one we developed had been used on the Amtrak train in the May accident, it would have shut down the engine and saved lives.”