What Price Railroad Safety?

Making the trains run safely and on time is like mom and apple pie. What’s not to love, especially if you can demonstrate that a company will save money by doing so?

The reality is that many benefits—like increased security, reduced risk of accidents and improved asset utilization—are often misunderstood, misstated, and given little weight when a company makes a decision about which technology to deploy. Instead of viewing them as “soft” factors with little more than public relations value, companies would do well to include such seemingly intangible costs when analyzing the benefits of installing a new system.

Witness the case of Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), the freight railroad that pioneered automated means of tracking and controlling the passage of trains in the late 1980s and early 1990s, then opted not to deploy it. Depending on who you talk to, the reasons for rejecting deployment were economic, technical, political and cultural.

And possibly fatal. Just last month, a BNSF freight train careered into a southern California commuter train, killing two people and injuring 100. In early May, the family of a passenger who suffered a brain hemorrhage in the course of the accident filed suit seeking compensatory and punitive damages from BNSF, alleging the railroad consciously chose not to install automated braking technology that could have prevented the accident because of the costs.

BNSF now may want to reevaluate its decision against implementing automation that could control trains already en route. The railroad declined to comment on its plans other than to say, through spokesman Pat Hiatte, that it is continuously reviewing its technology deployment strategies.

Yet the question remains: What is a reasonable cost for the kind of technology that can prevent passenger fatalities?

A single lawsuit may not sway BNSF toward adopting so-called positive train control (PTC) technology. After all, when the railroad nixed such a system nearly two decades ago, it seemed like a profitable idea. Economic and feasibility analyses found PTC would have helped the railroad achieve a 30% return on its investment after only three or four years.

PTC systems are designed to trace and manage passenger and freight trains by using sensors, computers and digital communications to control trains, braking systems, grade crossings and planning and scheduling systems. These control systems are the hub of what the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) calls intelligent railroads. Among other functions, PTC systems allow dispatchers to override train crews in the event of an emergency—applying brakes automatically, for instance, if trains were on a collision course. As in the California crash.

Such systems would be costly. The FRA, which is a safety branch of the federal Department of Transportation, estimates it would cost railroads $3 billion to $5 billion over a decade to implement PTC systems throughout the U.S.