Tying engineering and technology to mainstream life — and death — has been a unique element of the Design News' mission for the past two years. We've covered bridge, tunnel and crane collapses and, in this issue, the L.A. train crash, which will go down as the deadliest in recent memory.
Horrible railroad accidents have been with us for a long time. Railroading has become progressively less dangerous over the past century, but in its first 50 years, only mining might have been more dangerous. Explosions, fires, collisions, burns, bridge collapses, construction accidents and severed appendages came with the territory. Accident prevention was up to employees and that meant they, being human, could reduce accidents but never eliminate them. If the slogan “Safety First” did not originate with the railroads (I think it did), it should have. While slogans and awareness programs help reduce accidents, they are no substitute for technology that backstops human error.
Our coverage of the L.A. accident doesn't just show how a technology that proved itself almost two decades ago could have saved the 25 who died in the Sept. 12 crash. The stories also reveal conscious choices those in the position of influence make, or don't make.
Harvard Business School (HBS) published a fascinating case study in 1991 exploring the decision at the Burlington Northern Railroad (predecessor to today's BNSF Railway) whether to spend $350 million to implement its ARES Positive Train Control (PTC) on its entire network. I urge you to download it from the HBS website for a small fee and read it, especially the final third in which senior executives made their cases for and mostly against it. Had that project gone ahead, improved utilization could have made BN considerably more competitive, forcing other railroads to follow suit with investment in PTC.
BN senior managers asked many of the right questions and no fewer than eight outside consulting firms concluded the benefits and productivity would be substantial. Projected savings and additional revenue was almost double the cost of implementation. The divide within BN got political at times with PTC's backers labeled as “zealots.” Others felt left out of the decision making.
In that round, PTC lost out to debt repayment to raise the share price of the railroad. Except for references to dramatically improved safety, no one cited in the HBS report explicitly argued that PTC should be implemented because it could save lives and reduce injuries (union personnel liked it, though). The debate focused principally on what PTC would do for the bottom line and whether savings could be accomplished more inexpensively by something else.
It's impossible to say with certainty how PTC would have unfolded and worked had the BN gone forward with it. Had it, though, it's not a stretch to see how PTC would have become the dominant train control system years ago. Today, Congress has ordered railroads to install PTC by 2015 in light of the L.A. collision of a Metrolink commuter train with a Union Pacific freight train on Metrolink's tracks.
It is noteworthy that all four of the major U.S. freight railroads —BNSF, CSX, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific — recently agreed upon PTC interoperability standards and indicated they will comply with the new law requiring them to install PTC. It is unfortunate, however, that it took the L.A. collision to have Congress force them to do it. And was it reasonable to expect them to do it on their own? In light of the recent economic turmoil, a lot of questions like this have arisen.
In journalism school, we were taught “people before property” in covering accidents. That means death and injury warranted higher coverage than property loss. The same notion apparently got little air time almost 20 years in a seminal moment at the Burlington Northern Railroad.
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