Congress' $20 Billion Tech Mandate: Make Trains Safer - InformationWeek

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Congress' $20 Billion Tech Mandate: Make Trains Safer

Union Pacific is spending hundreds of millions on IT each year for the federal plan aimed at making train accidents less likely.

Imagine having a $300 million annual IT budget, about 1.5% of company revenue, and then being told by Congress that you need to spend an additional $350 million to $400 million a year on an IT project that will yield minimal business benefits and for which there are minimal federal subsidies.

That's the situation Union Pacific finds itself in with its version of Positive Train Control, a set of interoperable systems under development industry-wide aimed at preventing train-to-train collisions, over-speed derailments, and injuries to rail-side workers. PTC systems are designed to keep a train within authorized limits on a track. When necessary, the technology will override the engineer or operator to slow down or stop a train. "It self-enforces safety," says Michael Newcomb, the IT director who oversees UP's work on PTC.

A train crash in California in 2008 in which 25 people died led to the Rail Safety Improvement Act, which mandates that all major U.S. railroads implement a PTC system by Dec. 31, 2015. Currently, 11 PTC projects, involving nine railroads in at least 16 states, are in varying stages of development and implementation, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, which estimates that the systems will cover about 70,000 miles of track when the program is completed. A consortium led by UP, CSX Transportation, Norfolk Southern Railway, and BNSF Railway is leading the interoperability effort.

PTC is a huge undertaking, one that UP CIO Lynden Tennison equates to a massive "science project" requiring each railroad company to overhaul its communications, back-office, "wayside" switching and signaling, and on-board train infrastructures. Newcomb says the system will have to pass 10,000 test cases before it can go fully operational at UP. Already, there's widespread talk in the industry of the need to extend the deadline beyond 2015.

Tennison estimates that when all is said and done, the industry will have spent about $20 billion and UP itself more than $2 billion on PTC. Originally, it was thought that the program would let the railroad companies eliminate one of the two engineers on board each of their trains, yielding substantial cost savings over time, but union pressures scuttled those plans, Tennison says. So UP is looking for other ways to monetize its PTC work.

For example, that work is giving UP crews improved real-time feedback if they're violating train handling rules, it's helping with remote management of track wayside equipment, and it's improving communications security for national critical infrastructure.

A more tangible outcome of UP's PTC work is a system that alerts on-board engineers to optimal throttling and braking procedures given track, traffic, and other conditions, helping the company cut fuel costs by 4% to 6%. Deeper savings are possible, as UP studies show that its best engineers use two-thirds the fuel of its worst engineers. (UP now publishes the fuel metrics of its train engineers, rewarding the top tier with $75 gas cards while having serious chats with the underperformers.)

The fuel savings are noteworthy, Tennison says, "but you don't need $100,000 worth of hardware on the locomotive to do that. We could've done it for a much, much lower price."

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User Rank: Apprentice
8/19/2012 | 4:54:54 PM
re: Congress' $20 Billion Tech Mandate: Make Trains Safer
Tennison seems more interested in the bottom line than human safety. That's what you get when you deal mostly with machines. Of course his budget doesn't support it, it is a cost of business necessary to upgrade the US track system that everyone is required to do, and it is up to his board to enhance his budget to reflect it. Just like the airlines and other airspace users will have to invest in the new technologies for Air Traffic Control, NextGen, so too will the railroads. The public demands much from those to whom much is entrusted. The days of the train crashes killing hundreds are a thing of the past, the public, as reflected by the Congress, won't stand for it. So Tennison, get used to it and spend the money on safety, the day of your free ride with outdated, unsafe, and most importantly, fully amortized and paid for control systems are long past. Every other modern country in the world, especially in Europe where rail use is even more prevalent, has adopted or is nearing completion of PTC. BTW Preston, your arguments are similar to those originally raised to support the non adoption of the Westinghouse type air brake. Shame on you.
User Rank: Apprentice
8/9/2012 | 8:33:45 PM
re: Congress' $20 Billion Tech Mandate: Make Trains Safer
When I was growing up in Chicago in the 50's and later the CTA had a system that mechanically puts on the brake if a train goes past a red signal. It was an arm, at track level, that went up when the signal was red. If a train went past it it struck a matching arm that hung below the cars. The train would stop with or without a human in the cab.

This would have prevented the 2008 California event. And probably any event that involved blowing through a red signal.
Ohio Investigator
Ohio Investigator,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/9/2012 | 4:33:47 AM
re: Congress' $20 Billion Tech Mandate: Make Trains Safer
Correction---moon landing--1969, not 1967. Typo.
Ohio Investigator
Ohio Investigator,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/9/2012 | 4:26:48 AM
re: Congress' $20 Billion Tech Mandate: Make Trains Safer
Where is the emphasis on human safety? Aren't people's lives worth something? Why does this industry had such an abysmal safety record for over 175 years? Could it have something to do with a basic disregard for people's lives? I don't have to make the claim; history proves it. Speaking of history, just watch the History Channel's 1997 program, "Train Wrecks" and then ask yourself, why did all of those horrendous and deadly incidents happen? Could a lot of them have been avoided if the industry had cared more about safety?

The last 10 years have been hugely profitable for the railroads. That's why the brilliant businessman, Warren Buffett, bought into BNSF. So the idea that the industry doesn't have the money to invest in an extremely important safety technology, like Positive Train Control, is absurd. What would people have yelled if the airline industry had said, "We're not going to get radar in our planes, even though it will prevent almost all mid-air collisions, because it costs too much?" Imagine that!

Anyone who researches the U.S. Railroad industry, starting in 1825, will quickly find that safety has been historically last and profit first. The U.S. Railroad industry was killing an average of 9,000 to 10,000 people a year in the late 1800's and into the 1900's. It's a fact that the industry was slow to adopt the telegraph for communicating train locations and that lack of communications caused a massive number of train-into-train collisions. It was slow to adopt the pneumatic braking system of genius inventor George Westinghouse. Then, we could talk about the wooden passenger cars that collapsed in derailments / collisions, trapping people. The stoves used in cold weather would then set the car on fire and the occupants wouldn't have a chance. Steel passenger cars were available, but, as usual, the RR's played cheap and kept using the wooden ones.

Posted in locomotives all over America by train crews in the 1800's and into the 1900's:

Uphill Slow
Downhill Fast
Tonnage First
Safety Last

Those train crew members KNEW what the railroad industry's attitude was towards safety and human life.

So I would expect the industry spokespersons to howl that the above information is "grossly outdated" and doesn't take into account the "big advances" in technology adopted by the industry. Really! Well, the honest truth is that the U.S. Railroad industry is still in what I would call the "Dark Ages" of technology. Examples abound: the continued use of the 1870 Track Circuit that isn't "fail-safe" as the industry, the FRA and the manufacturers claim. All it takes is some rust on one rail (or other contaminant) and the shunt doesn't happen. No shunt = No train detection = No activation of active warning devices. Ditto Block Switching. The industry should have moved to devices such as loop detectors and magnetometers over 50 years ago. Those devices aren't affected by weather and rail conditions like the monstrously ancient Track Circuit. If the Track Circuit is so reliable and "fail-safe", why does the DPS in Austin, Texas get over 300 calls a week from motorists reporting malfunctioning crossing warning devices? Why are there total activation failures of crossing warning devices all over the U.S.? The FRA has a database of them, but my bet is that the database only has a tiny fraction of the actual total failures of the Track Circuit.

I provided tech. support for the largest Tandem computer system in the world in 1990. That company had a fleet of trucks that delivered products to the company's 1,200+ stores. The trucks were equipped with GPS tracking. So the company knew where the trucks were at all times. Here we are in 2012 and the railroad industry could have GPS tracking on every locomotive, but, of course, they don't. The tracking technology has been around more than 20 years, but, as usual, the railroad industry isn't using it and wouldn't be testing PTC technology unless the FRA forced them to do it. Oh, and BTW, where is the reflective tape on all of the rolling stock? The FRA gave the industry 10 years to put it on (deadline is 2015---bet it will be extended, just like PTC.)

I interviewed a former top executive at the Association of American Railroads (AAR), who told me he was fired many years ago for even suggesting that the railroad industry should be spending some money on train and track safety!

Maybe someone in cyberland can explain to me why those two UP freight trains collided head-on, killing 3 crew members, in the Oklahoma panhandle recently? Like I said, this is 2012, we put people on the moon in 1967, we have put remote landers on Mars, but the locomotives operating all over America don't have GPS location that has been available for over 20 years. Beyond pathetic.

And, anyone who still thinks I am exaggerating about the RR industry's rotten attitude concerning safety has only to read New York Times investigator Walt Bogdanich's Pulitzer Prize-winning series, "Death on the Track"--2003-2004, to get an eye-full. Maybe someone can also explain why locomotives are so poorly lighted---NO side lights, many still painted black and front lights that have a very narrow angle of illumination. Many school buses have Strobe lights and you can't miss them. Why not locomotives? Strobe lights are dirt cheap! How come the tractor-trailers on our highways are lit-up like Christmas trees, front, sides and back, but trains aren't?

My heart goes out to the families of the crew members killed in Oklahoma on June 24th. People make mistakes, but the question remains, was it Dispatcher error, crew error or Track Circuit malfunction? If those locomotives were equipped with GPS location equipment, perhaps alarms would have gone off to warn the crews that the trains were on the same track. Why weren't they communicating by radio? I can't wait to see what the NTSB comes up with, given their highly questionable claims after the Amtrak-truck crash--Bourbonnais, Illinois, 1999, and the U.S. 95, Nevada desert Amtrak-truck crash, last year.

In case someone asks, I DO NOT work for the trucking industry and never have. They have lots of problems, too.

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