In the 1990s, while enjoying a boom in air travel, Boeing was concerned. Current growth rates combined with the existing accident rate meant that a major accident would occur somewhere in the world every week by 2010. Air travel was by far the safest form of transportation, and yet a transmitter of gruesome television images would send a different message. passengers, employees and regulators. It was a future about which the industry could only say ick.
Boeing might have been more inclined to keep its mouth shut if it hadn’t also looked at the technology and human factors. practices on the horizon that could further reduce the accident rate, to the point that Bill Clinton’s transportation secretary was not laughed at when he said proposed aiming for a zero accident rate.
You can see where this is going after the Norfolk Southern crash in Northeast Ohio, in which thankfully no one was killed. Amtrak itself is experiencing many worse years today, in terms of passenger fatalities, than the entire major US airline industry.
Aircraft operate in three dimensions, can change direction, and share the skies with all manner of airborne objects. Although a car is essentially restricted to two dimensions, it has much more freedom of movement than a train.
A train can move forward. You can also go back. This appears to be a remarkably attractive environment for automated security enhancements, and yet such innovations have been a long time coming.
Since 2008, the industry has been busy with the federal pursuit of “positive train control,” a novel and experimental technology that, by the time it was tested, could have been replicated in the then-new iPhone app at a fraction of the cost.
And PTC only addresses a subset of safety risks, when a locomotive driver ignores track markings. It does nothing to improve accidents like the one in the city of East Palestine in Ohio, caused by a defective wheel bearing. Clearly, PTC’s goal was partly to preserve the engineer from obsolescence, as if the solution to aviation safety had been to find ways to keep bringing fallible humans into the equation.
News algorithms, he reports, have been happy to link to Norfolk Southern’s spending on dividends and share buybacks, in the apparent misconception that maintaining access to capital is a security deterrent. This is a picture of the world turned upside down.
In fact, one well-grounded theory holds that publicly traded trucking companies are especially favorable to safety regulation because it shifts responsibility for accidents, and the storms that follow, to the government.
When an accident happens, carriers can say they were following the rules. Witness how Donald Trump, Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg upstaged the remorseful company CEO this week as they played political badminton over the derailment. Notice how quickly the allegation that the Trump administration scuttled an Obama-era rule for high-tech braking dissolved into an indeterminate mess. The rule would not have applied to the East Palestine train anyway. It is also not clear that electronic braking would have made any difference to the accident that actually occurred.
Regulation can be helpful in addressing the problems of the opportunist. It can force industries to adopt more security than their customers are willing to pay for.
But highly prescriptive regulation, especially that requiring ill-timed technology investments, carries its own risks. It can divert attention from investments that are actually recommended for economic and technological reasons.
Example: Aren’t there better ways to monitor wheel and axle failure than traditional detectors located 10 to 40 miles away? Even more so given the ability to harvest energy from the movement of the train to keep cheap onboard digital monitors charged? Yes, such innovations. exist.
Companies must necessarily target multiple bogies at the same time. They have to compete for customers, investors, workers, and regulatory and political favor. In many cases, they may have a pretty good idea of what they’re doing. When airlines lure travelers out of their cars with low fares, this also improves travel safety. When railways capture more of the long-haul trucking market, overall safety increases due to the higher accident rate of trucking.
Although it will never be admitted, PTC was a misguided activity that absorbed a disproportionate share of industry attention and investment for the better part of two decades. In ways no less real for being unseen, it also likely contributed to the accident that occurred when a handful of Norfolk Southern tank cars drove through East Palestine, Ohio.
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