Bystanders examine the wreckage of a train on the Fort Worth & Denver line in 1918. Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Train Wrecks Aren’t Always Catalysts for Better Safety

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May 28 (Bloomberg) -- On May 17, a Metro-North Railroad commuter train hit a broken rail and sideswiped another train near Fairfield, Connecticut. The crash injured more than 70 people. Miraculously, no one was killed.

It could have been much worse. In 2008, the crash of another commuter train -- California’s Metrolink -- killed 25 and injured many more. Unlike the Metro-North accident, the California disaster probably was the result of human error, specifically an engineer who was distracted as he sent text messages on his phone.

That earlier crash still haunts the railroad industry. That’s because it prompted Congress to pass the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008. The measure requires the railroad industry to install, by December 2015, so-called positive train control, a high-tech system aimed at reducing human error on trains. Railroads will have to bear the entire cost, which industry executives estimate will ultimately exceed $5 billion, and the railroads are lobbying Congress to delay the system’s implementation and to scale it back.

Horrific Disasters

It’s tempting to view this as just another case of the railroad industry being cavalier about passenger safety. History shows that the truth is more complicated. During the early years of the 20th century, scores of passengers perished in horrific - - and highly publicized -- disasters. Twenty dead at Mount Union, Pennsylvania, in 1917, when an engineman failed to notice a fog-obscured signal. Eighty-six died in Indiana the following year, when an overmedicated engineer fell asleep. Less than three weeks later, more than 100 people were killed in Nashville, Tennessee, in another accident caused by human error.

Then, too, a technological remedy was presented. The so-called automatic train stop, which would apply the brakes of any train whose engineman failed to obey a signal, offered the promise of eliminating human error from railroad operations. Railroaders, however, saw no need to install the ATS. Human error leading to accidents was rare. Railroading was an inherently dangerous occupation, but relatively few people died in the types of spectacular accidents that generated newspaper headlines.

Instead, they perished in ones and twos. Employees fell off a train, or got crushed between cars. Ordinary people died while walking along or across tracks. But very few people died in major crashes and derailments. Instead, the vast majority of railroad fatalities -- which the economist Mark Aldrich recently determined numbered more than 5,500 lives in 1890 -- were due to mundane accidents.

Much as the current debate over gun control centers on mass shootings at the expense of individual murders and suicides, the debate over automatic-train-stop technology a century ago was driven by a focus on rare train crashes at the expense of the banal accidents that ultimately claimed many more lives.

Yet, dispassionate economic calculations of the relative cost-benefit of railroads’ capital investments compared with the number of deaths that were prevented had little bearing on the emotional trauma that accompanied a horrific wreck. Ceding to public pressure, the Interstate Commerce Commission -- the federal regulator for the railroads -- issued order No. 13413 in 1922. It required the railroads to install automatic-train-control systems on certain routes.

Rarer Crashes

It’s impossible to know how many lives were saved by ATS technology, but it probably wasn’t very many. Railroads became far safer during the 20th century, thanks to stronger rail, more crash-resistant equipment and, above all, improved operating practices and safety-awareness campaigns. Those enhancements saved only one or two lives at a time, but that was where most lives could be saved. By the 1950s, with passenger traffic in steep decline, railroads removed most of their ATS equipment, rather than bear the expense of maintaining it. Significantly, the overall casualty rate on the railroads continued to fall.

ATS and its modern cousin, PTC, would probably have prevented the 2008 California wreck -- though not the one at Fairfield. But such accidents are even rarer than they were a century ago, and it is unlikely that PTC will have a significant effect on railroad safety. In fact, there are far more productive ways for the railroads to spend $5 billion on safety: grade-crossing improvements, as well as additional rest time and better scheduling for train crews.

It’s even possible that PTC will make railroads less safe. The high cost of installing the system will probably require railroads to raise their rates, driving even more traffic to the trucking industry. Unfortunately, more trucks on the highways might increase the already-substantial number of fatalities attributable to car-truck collisions.

(Albert Churella is an associate professor of social and international studies at Southern Polytechnic State University. He is the author of “From Steam to Diesel: Managerial Customs and Organizational Capabilities in the Twentieth-Century American Locomotive Industry” and “The Pennsylvania Railroad: Volume 1, Building an Empire, 1846-1917.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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