This Week at Amtrak; September 22, 2008
A weekly digest of events, opinions, and forecasts from
United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.
America’s foremost passenger rail policy institute
1526 University Boulevard, West, PMB 203 • Jacksonville, Florida 32217-2006 USA
Volume 5, Number 26
Founded over three decades ago in 1976, URPA is a nationally known policy institute that focuses on solutions and plans for passenger rail systems in North America. Headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida, URPA has professional associates in Minnesota, California, Arizona, New Mexico, the District of Columbia, Texas, and New York. For more detailed information, along with a variety of position papers and other documents, visit the URPA web site at http://www.unitedrail.org.
URPA is not a membership organization, and does not accept funding from any outside sources.
1) It’s been a lousy month for passenger rail. The horror of the Metrolink crash in Southern California with over two dozen deaths and dozens more passengers injured will remain with us for a long, long time.
Too many reports from both the news media and insiders have pointed to the simple cause of this passenger rail holocaust as human error – a locomotive engineer who wasn’t paying attention to his job, blowing through a red signal, running a closed switch, and crashing head-on into an oncoming Union Pacific freight train.
2) It didn’t take long for several things to happen, including plaintiffs running to the courthouse to file lawsuits, Metrolink senior management dissolving into disarray, a hue and cry from unions and others wanting to implement positive train control, and blame placed on Metrolink’s private operating company for being the low bidder and thus demanding too much out of its employees.
Can we be candid with each other? No matter what the cause of this wreck, whether it was sloppy human error on the part of the deceased Metrolink engineer, an instant fatal heart attack for the deceased engineer, or him just closing his eyes long enough to rub an errant cinder from his eye, if there would have been a second pair of eyes in the locomotive, this accident would not have happened.
The oncoming Union Pacific freight train had a second pair of eyes in the locomotive, belonging to the train’s conductor. Since the days of the caboose are long gone, conductors have ridden comfortably in the cab of freight train locomotives along with the engineer. Both stay vigilant for signals and oncoming problems.
Metrolink, like Amtrak, on short runs uses one engineer, with only one pair of eyes in the locomotive’s cab. Yes, there is a deadman switch which automatically stops the locomotive unless manually set in a short certain period of time, but that doesn’t do much for missing signals when the engineer isn’t paying attention.
The reason, of course, for a single engineer is for the railroad to save money. In this case, the savings to Metrolink of an assistant engineer’s salary on that particular train will instead cost someone $200 million (the federally-mandated cap on accident settlements), plus the cost of new equipment, cleaning up the mess, and lost revenue.
When putting together a business plan, the idea is to factor in ALL costs, and see if a profit can be made. Naturally, business people want costs to be as low as possible, so profits can be realized. That’s all okay, because that’s the way the system works, and it’s a good system. However, when you’re talking about safety issues, sometimes the most cost-effective way is not the best way.
3) Some agitate for a system known as positive train control, which is based on a global positioning system. Every locomotive – thus, every train – is outfitted with this system, and every dispatcher knows every moment where every train is located, including if a train is or is not where it’s supposed to be at that moment.
This is nothing new; it’s been around on some railroads for many years, and, even before the age of global positioning systems, there still was a system of positive train control. People at railroads are no dummies, and they can figure things like this out.
It costs a lot of money to implement and monitor these systems. Since the Metrolink crash, the estimate has been in the billions of dollars for every railroad to install and implement the system nationwide.
Positive train control is a good thing, but ... for the cost, would it still be cheaper, more efficient, and, safer, to put a second pair of eyes in every locomotive cab? Has anyone done a cost/effect study on this? Have the unions taken a position of wanting positive train control, but not more employees?
4) The long term, fascinating part of this Metrolink mess concerns the California courts. Many of us in the real world outside of California know that state’s courts to be, shall we say, less than normal when it comes to rendering reasonable decisions. In other words, it’s a paradise for attorneys seeking to color outside of the lines.
So, Congress mandated a cap of $200 million for damages in any railroad crash, including crashes by Amtrak and Metrolink, and every other commuter operation. You may recall this was one of the areas of contention which kept Central Florida from having a new commuter rail system this year, because CSX didn’t want any liability for crashes of its freight trains with commuter trains on state owned commuter tracks. (Exactly the identical scenario Union Pacific faces in California with the Metrolink crash, where UP was only traveling over the route using trackage rights, not infrastructure ownership.)
California attorneys have already sent smoke signals up via the news media they will try and get around the $200 million cap so their clients have a "fair share" of the financial pie from this crash. Legal observers will be keen to watch these developments for a number of reasons.
Passenger rail observers need to be watching these developments as if their lives depended on it, because the entire future of passenger rail may very well depend on these court cases.
Freight railroads hosting long distance and commuter passenger trains will always first make the case their tracks are unavailable for use by passengers because of capacity constraints. But, really, the greatest fear is liability.
The motto of every tort attorney is "sue anything that moves, or, better yet, anything or anyone who has deep pockets." Since the dawn of the railroads nearly 200 years ago, there has always been a belief by the public that no one or no organization has any deeper pockets than railroads, no matter how close any single railroad may be to bankruptcy.
Tort attorneys inherently believe the public – no matter how ignorant, stupid, or just plain dumb – should be protected from themselves, especially by companies with deep pockets. If tort attorneys had their way, our entire existence would consist of being wrapped in a protective cocoon from the moment we are born until we die, and heaven help the cocoon that wasn’t fire proof, earthquake proof, or idiot proof.
Without a doubt, the Metrolink crash, especially since it was a result of human error, will have a cooling effect on any railroad’s desire to discuss new passenger service. It’s just too much of an exposure to risk.
But, you say, there are insurance companies to cover these losses up to $200 million. No, not really. Even if SOME of the cost is bourne by good risk management and insurance underwriting, there is still millions of dollars of exposure that can’t be covered by insurance (Not to mention the mere cost of the insurance premiums.).
Thanks to sky high gasoline prices, commuter rail has become attractive to many people and many local and state governments. What’s old has become new, and it looks good. But, one commuter rail engineer, paying more attention to texting on a cell phone than doing his job, may have put a stake through the heart of a resurgence of commuter and passenger rail. A lot of freight railroad presidents and vice presidents are going to have to be persuaded all over again how attractive the income from passenger and commuter rail is before they will happily allow more trains on their tracks.
Or, there will be more deals like the proposed deal here in Central Florida where the state or some regional or local entity will out and out purchase the tracks and infrastructure, and the freights will become tenants with trackage rights, but absent any liability whatsoever for any type of crash, spill, derailment, or hangnail found on a civilian due to freight train operations.
Everybody wants something from the freight railroads, but few realize how much the freight railroads have at risk when even a trespasser steps onto railroad property.
We are reminded again about the brainless trespasser in Boston who, during the night, climbed on top of a parked Amtrak Acela train set at the Boston terminal, touched a hot overhead wire, and just about fried himself to death. Instead of him being prosecuted by Amtrak for trespassing and a number of other misdemeanors, he’s suing Amtrak (you can’t make this stuff up) because his attorney says Amtrak SHOULD HAVE KNOWN IN ADVANCE a drunk college-aged young man was going to find the top of a parked Acela train set in the middle of the night at a closed passenger station an attractive place to practice his climbing skills and then be stupid enough to touch a live electrical wire. Since these dregs of the human gene pool are everywhere, it’s easy to understand why railroads want as little human interaction as possible. When you put people in passenger and commuter trains, you’re flying into the statistical face of something going wrong and some passenger and their attorney deciding the deep pockets of the railroad just caused them to hit the legal lottery jackpot.
4) We mourn the death of the Metrolink passengers and the deaths of railroad crews. We praise the rescue teams, who witnessed unspeakable carnage in that Metrolink coach where the locomotive was plowed halfway back into the car by the impact of the wreck. We live in fear of the tort attorneys and what mess they are going to make of commuter and passenger rail.
We live brightly for another day where every train arrives at its terminal intact, on time, and with everyone healthy.
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J. Bruce Richardson
United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.
1526 University Boulevard, West, PMB 203
Jacksonville, Florida 32217-2006 USA