Every year about this time, as it has for the past 18, my 50th birthday rolls around, and I have a brief moment of worry when I think I might actually be getting older. The moment fades away pretty quickly when I realize that 50 is the new 30, and I've still got a long way to go before I even think of acting my age, just as I have always had a long way to go before acting my age.
But sometimes, I think I'm getting older because I can't remember things people said they said, and I do remember things they don't remember saying.....
Take for example, the May17, 2016 webcast of the NTSB's board meeting to announce the cause of last year's fatal overspeed derailment of Amtrak #188 at Frankford Junction. In his opening remarks, NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart stated that: The NTSB has been recommending positive train control for more than 45 years, and its potential to save lives and prevent injuries has long been established.
More than 45 years? OK, let's make it 46 years and that gets us back to 1970. NTSB has been recommending PTC since 1970, because "its potential to save lives...has long been established"?
Really? How could I have missed that. I'm a modern guy, like Iggy sang about 37 years ago, and I don't remember that. I mean for 1, there wasn't a PTC system 46 years ago. For 2, there weren't the components for PTC 45 years ago. For 3, railroads in the US weren't in any condition to undertake the research, design, testing, validation, installation of PTC 46 years ago.
Maybe that doesn't mean NTSB didn't call for PTC 46 years ago, but if NTSB did in fact call for that, then either NTSB is terrifyingly prescient, or calling for PTC then was a bit like calling for mining colonies on Mars by the year 2000-- great idea. How do we get there?
I decided to check, and what better place to check than the NTSB's database of all its recommendations made in the course of its railroad accident investigations since 1970?
It's easy as pie. You can do it at home. It's elementary. And it's fun! Use the search function at the bottom of the page; select "railway" for the mode and "positive train control" for the keywords, and up will pop 101 recommendations on 11 pages.
Elementary, like taking candy from a baby. Except...
Except nothing in any of the recommendations for 1970 mentions positive train control or anything that is remotely akin to positive train control. Nothing mentions positive train separation, or positive stop, or positive protection against overspeed, positive protection against an improperly lined switch, or positive prevention of unauthorized entry into an out of service track.
Safety recommendaton R-70-020, developed from the investigation of the head on collison of two commuter trains on the New Canaan Branch of the then Penn Central Railroad states:
The NTSB recommends that the Federal Railroad Administration, if it receives additional statutory authority, study the feasibility of requiring a form of automatic train control at points where passenger trains are required to meet other trains.
But that's not positive train control. It's not even close.
The technology for PTC wasn't available in 1970, and it wasn't available in October 1972 when two ICG commuter trains collided near 27th Street, killing 45 people. This might account for the absence of a recommendation for the installation of PTC from the NTSB in its investigation of that accident.
The technology wasn't available, and just as significantly, the railroads of the US, taken as a whole, as a system, were not economically capable of supporting PTC.
What was the big event in US railroad history in 1970? That would have been the bankruptcy of the Penn Central Railroad and the beginning of the "long slide" in the industry leading to the creation of Conrail out of the bankrupt railroads in the Northeast, the vanishing of the Milwaukee, the Rock Island, and other roads, the Staggers Act that recognized the US system was a tad overbuilt and underfunded for the revenue being generated, and the service being demanded; the mergers that created the CSX system; the consolidation of the western roads into two major networks. In fact all that railroads are today, and perhaps are not might reasonably be traced back to the collapse of the Penn Central, with one or two other events thrown in-- like the oil price spikes, etc
Here's the deal-- it's one thing to talk about automatic train control in the US-- automatic train control however is a system that overlays and supplements an already existing automatic block signal system. Now the fixed external signals themselves don't have to be there, but the discrete packages in which occupancy is registered, those sections of track we transform into the automatic blocks, automatically registering a condition of occupancy and capable of communicating that information to following trains, must be there.
The mitigation Metro-North applied to the curve at DV to enforce the 30 mph speed restriction? That was an application of automatic train control, "pushing" a permanent medium code, "as if" another train were in the block on the other end of the curve.
Not so with the PTC being installed on the freight railroads and most commuter lines. PTC there is "locomotive centric." PTC determines the train's location and matches that against the authorities, limits, restrictions for movement intially and subsequently provided to the locomotive. PTC does not need to "read" signals. It needs to know authorities and the limits to authorities.
Positive train control in the US has developed in the way it has precisely because it must function as an overlay and supplement to tracks and systems that are not equipped with automatic block signal systems, the "dark territory" lots of us grew up with (or didn't grow up, or refused to grow up in some cases). Not too many passenger trains are run in "dark territory," but lots of freight trains are.
The first mention I can find of a "positive control system" in the NTSB recommendations is R-87-002, regarding the infamous collision of Amtrak 94 at Chase, Md. with three Conrail locomotives.
The recommendation is not one of installing a positive control system but of an action to be taken "pending the installation of the automatic train control devices or an equivalent positive control system on all locomotives operating on the high speed passenger train trackage of the Northeast Corridor."
What's the point? The point is that the technology, and the economics, for supporting PTC were not sufficiently developed in 1970, nor in 1980 nor in 1990 nor in 2000.
The point is that before anyone claims, as the vice-Chair of the NTSB did, that delay in the installation of PTC is a cause for accidents, we need take a look at the data provided to FRA from the revenue service demonstration taking place on Metrolink, because I don't think those numbers build confidence.
Before we conclude that the PTC technology has achieved a reliability that makes its application an improvement to operating safety, rather than a risk to operating safety, we ought to take a hard, hard look. We ought to do the numbers-- those old numbers (although less old than NTSB claims for the age of its recommendation) from 2015 and we ought to ask for the new numbers since revenue service demonstration has been extended into 2016.
The point is to know what we're talking about before we stake claims on legacies.
May 23, 2016
That's how elementary it's gonna be...
Len Barry, 1-2-3