I’m sure we can all agree that the passenger railroad tragedy that occurred on Sunday December 1st in New York should never have happened. It killed four, injuring dozens of others; reports now point directly to human error as the cause. The manner of vehicle is inconsequential in this equation; any vehicle attempting a curve with an engineered speed limit of 30 mph can expect that same curve to be life-threatening at 80 mph.
You might expect, as I did, that a modern passenger train in 2013 would have safety measures in place in order to automatically apply necessary braking when approaching a dangerous curve. After all, trains run on tracks, right? The complicating factors in any train route are exponentially more predictable than practically any other form of transportation. Why wasn’t there a safety redundancy?
Well, it turns out that some of the MTA’s trains utilize a safety mechanism that has been in existence for almost 100 years. It’s been aptly named Automatic Train Control. In fact, the LIRR (also part of the MTA) implemented a version of ATC in the 1950’s, and has used it ever since on many of their lines. But apparently NOT on the train that derailed Sunday.
I’m fond of train travel, but it is well-known that passenger rail service in the United States has not turned a profit in well over 40 years. Why? The government nationalized passenger rail service in 1971 in an effort to “save” the industry from collapse. At the time private rail companies were desperately looking to free themselves from the growing financial burden (and regulation) of passenger service in order to focus on more profitable freight service.
Since nationalization, passenger rail in the United States has received tens of billions of dollars in taxpayers’ subsidies from the government without once showing profit. The classic argument of passenger rail being a necessity is hard to fathom. If rail service is so critical, why has it not managed to complete a single year in the black in a generation’s time? Amtrak subsidies alone have amounted to more than $1.4 billion per year in the past few years, and it is estimated that subsidies to the MTA are in the same range, if not more. Since economic viability is obviously not the goal, why isn’t safety? Whis is existing technology not universally implemented which could have prevented this most recent derailment among others?
It is healthy to question the wisdom of mandates that force taxpayers to fund entities who have no way of succeeding in the free market. At the same time, however, it is important to take note of situations in which the regulated entity is closely tied to the regulator. In the case of passenger rail, it can be argued that they are essentially the same entity. The conflict of interest between a government that both regulates and operates a service leaves us all less safe, since oversight is essentially internal. For those who might disagree and be far more trusting than I of the competence of our state and federal governments in ensuring passenger safety, take note of this: Congress passed a rail-safety law that mandated the installation of a new “Positive Train Control” in all passenger and freight trains by 2015. The PTC systems are quite costly; estimated to cost between $6 and $22 billion for nationwide implementation – and there are significant doubts as to their ability to meet the 2015 deadline, with railroads attempting to push the installation deadlines back as many as 7 years.
In the wake of this latest deadly passenger rail tragedy, I have serious questions for lawmakers who vehemently push for future safety measures while disregarding the necessity of current action using existing technology that has been readily available for nearly 100 years. If this latest tragedy is indeed a result of human error, as it appears to be, some blame must rest with that person responsible for the safe operation of the train. Yet, this deadly tragedy has shone a light on a much deeper and dangerous issue. This is a failure of government to successfully regulate an industry under its own monopolistic control. The result: every time we board a train we place our lives in the hands of a frightening conflict of interest.
Ed Nash is the President of Altius Management in Nashville, TN.