Read the Metrolink case study beginning on (google)of the text as well as the Reuters article on train safety rules: Buffett May Benefit as Train Lobby Bids to Weaken Safety Rule.
In your post, consider the following questions:
Good and Evil on the Rails
As a child Robert M. Sanchez counted the cars on passing trains. One day when he was seven he ran to an idling locomotive and the engineer took him into the wondrous machine, let him blow the horn, and, unwittingly, set his course for life. As he grew up he often visited nearby railyards, never losing his fascination with trains.
After high school he drove Greyhound buses for a time and then found work with Union Pacific on a maintenance crew. After several years he worked his way up, fulfilling his dream of becoming an engineer. Soon Amtrak hired him. He and his partner, a waiter, bought a home near Los Angeles. Neighbors described Sanchez as relentlessly cheerful, buoyant, and passionate about trains. Yet trouble was there too. He was caught shoplifting at Costco, pleaded guilty, and served 90 days in jail on weekends. He argued with his partner and suggested they break up. On February 14, 2003, his partner hung himself in their garage, leaving a note that read: “Rob, Happy Valentine’s Day. I love you.”1
Two years later Sanchez became an engineer for Metrolink, a commuter rail system crossing six Southern California counties. Metrolink carries about 40,000 passengers a day on a busy 388-mile track network shared with freight traffic. He loved his job though he worked a tiring split shift. Soon he bought a modest suburban house where he lived with four miniature greyhounds. Again, neighbors described him as cheerful, spirited, and exhilarated by railroading, but some saw him as a recluse who kept to himself and avoided revealing his past. He abided with a dirt yard that stood out in a neighborhood of tended landscapes.2
Although friends said Sanchez found joy in his work, there were a few difficulties. He received five informal discipline letters for absences and failure to follow rules. Twice he was counseled orally about use of his cell phone while on duty. In July 2008 a suicidal man sidestepped a crossing arm and ran in front of the train he was operating. Under Metrolink’s policy he took some days off before returning to work, but, according to his family, he was forced to go back before his emotional recovery was complete.3
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 12, 2008
On this day, Robert Sanchez was up before dawn. He reported at 5:30 a.m. and worked four hours, rested four hours, then returned to work in the afternoon. At 3:03 p.m. he took train 111, a diesel-electric locomotive and three passenger cars, on a commuter route out of Union Station. After five stops he approached the Chatsworth station 33 miles northwest, passing a solid yellow light indicating he should be prepared to stop at the next signal. He failed to radio the dispatcher and call it out as required. It was a beautiful day there with clear skies, calm winds, and a mild 73 degrees.
After stopping for 57 seconds the train departed the station, a random assembly of 225 souls with perhaps the most troubled in the lead. At exactly 4:20:07 p.m. Sanchez shifted the throttle from the idle position to position 2 and released the train’s air brakes. As it moved, he pushed the throttle to its maximum 8 position. Rapidly, the train increased speed to 42 mph. At 4:20:20 he sounded the locomotive’s bell and horn for the Devonshire Road crossing.4
At 4:21:03 he received a short text message from a teenage rail fan: “I would like that too. We already need to meet 796. That would be best.” This was about a plan for Sanchez to sneak him aboard the locomotive later that day and let him take the controls for fun. At 4:21:23 Sanchez again activated the bell and horn for the Chatsworth Street crossing. By 4:21:35 the train’s speed was 54 mph and he moved the throttle back to position 4 and braked, slowing it to 44 mph in preparation for a curve. At 4:21:56 the train passed a red signal light ahead of the curve. It was a command to stop. Sanchez failed to radio in the signal and did not stop.
At 4:22:01 Sanchez sent a text in reply to the teenager: “yea … usually @ north camarillo.” At 4:22:02 the train passed over a power switch turned to move a local freight train coming in the opposite direction off on a siding.
The freight train was Union Pacific LOF65-12 consisting of two locomotives and 17 cars. It entered the curve eastbound at 41 mph as Sanchez came on at 43 mph from the west. Closing at a combined 84 mph, each locomotive became visible to the engineer in the other only when they were 540 feet apart and four to five seconds from impact. In that instant the Union Pacific engineer and the conductor, who was also in the cab, saw the Metrolink locomotive. The engineer hit an emergency brake and started to run out the cab’s rear door. Seeing there was too little time he “just stood there and watched it happen in disbelief.”5 The conductor froze on his feet, uttering an epithet. In the other locomotive, Sanchez did nothing with the controls.
At 4:22:23 the trains collided. The lead Union Pacific locomotive crushed Sanchez before pushing the massive bulk of his locomotive back 52 feet into the first coach. The compression killed 23 passengers. Another person died in the second coach. A sheriff’s deputy described the scene. “I saw locomotives engulfed in flames … and … I saw numerous people, maybe a dozen, walking in various means, I don’t know, delusioned, like they were zombies waking with various types of injuries with their hands out and saying help …”6 Rescue workers needed four hours to extricate all the victims from wreckage. Hospitals took in 102 injured including the engineer and conductor from the freight train.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was called in. The NTSB is a small, independent federal agency established by Congress in 1967 to investigate transportation accidents and make safety recommendations. It did a detailed analysis of the collision, interviewing witnesses, holding hearings, and examining physical evidence such as the signal switch wiring and even fasteners on the track’s wooden crossties.
An autopsy found that Sanchez had adult-onset diabetes, high blood pressure, and an enlarged heart. He met the clinical definition of obesity. And he was HIV positive. His use of prescription drugs kept these conditions under control. The Union Pacific conductor’s blood and urine tested positive for marijuana use, though this was not relevant to the cause of the accident.
The investigation also focused on management. Metrolink is organized as a regional association with a governing board of representatives from five Southern California counties. It was formed in 1992 to improve mobility and reduce traffic congestion in densely populated areas. Most of its operations are outsourced. Sanchez was hired and supervised by Connex, the subsidiary of a French corporation that ran Metrolink’s trains under a contract worth about $25 million a year.
Under the contract Metrolink retained overall responsibility for its operations. As one top Connex manager noted, “We run the railroad the way they want it run.”7 However, much was delegated, including the supervision of train crews. Connex conducted the “efficiency tests” required of every railroad.8 These tests are done by supervisors who observe trains, monitor radio traffic, and analyze data from recorders in locomotives to check rules compliance. For example, they use stopwatches to make sure engineers blow horns for 15 seconds before entering a street crossing. They use radar guns to check train speeds. They stop trains for surprise inspections.
Connex supervisors performed about 1,000 such tests monthly. During his three years with Metrolink Sanchez had only a few failures on them. In 2006, when a rule against cell phone use on duty went into effect, a safety manager arranged for someone to call Sanchez’ number, then stopped his train and boarded the locomotive. As they were talking, Sanchez’ phone rang. The phone was not supposed to be in the operator’s compartment or turned on, but it was stowed away in a bag and Sanchez said he had forgotten about it. The supervisor accepted this and simply counseled him about the policy. No more calls were made to his phone to test his compliance.
In 2007 he twice was cited for failing to call out a wayside signal. Engineers are supposed to radio the Metrolink operations center to acknowledge each lighted signal they encounter. Still, his supervisor said Sanchez was frequently tested on calling signals and his performance was “above average.”9 Earlier that year Sanchez also got a written warning for neglecting to light a marker at the end of his train. And about a month before the collision a conductor saw him using a cell phone as his train was ready to leave a station. Sanchez told him he knew he should put the phone away and did. The conductor reported this to their Connex supervisor, who spoke to Sanchez again about the policy and did two observations of him in the next two weeks. He was confident that Sanchez understood the policy. However, the supervisor said it was hard to enforce.
It’s almost impossible … [T]he engineer, first of all, is going to have the door locked. You’ve got to unlock the door to get up on it. He’s probably going to hear you coming—he or she, and, you know, it would be almost impossible to surprise somebody, you know, to inspect it … [O]f all the times I’ve gone up on a locomotive, I’ve never seen anybody with a cell phone or talking on a cell phone.10
In themselves, these incidents on Sanchez’ record were not damning. The Connex safety manager had a subjective faith in him. “[He] was a competent engineer,” he told investigators, “[a]nd I felt comfortable putting people with him.”11 Several weeks before his final shift Sanchez even got an award for “safety and rules compliance.”
However, his behavior on the day of the accident showed brazen deceit and disrespect for rules. He failed to call out two signals. And Verizon Wireless records showed he made four phone calls, sent 21 text messages, and received 21 text messages while operating the train. It was habitual behavior. On each of seven working days preceding the accident he had made calls and sent and received between 30 and 125 text messages while operating trains.12 Most of the texting was with teenage rail fans. Interviews revealed he had once before let a teenager sneak on to run a locomotive.
In its accident report the NTSB stated the probable cause of the collision as Sanchez’ inattention to the red signal light because texting in violation of company rules distracted him. It made one new recommendation, that railroads put audio and video devices in locomotive cabs to monitor train crews. It repeated a previous recommendation for installing a crash- and fire-protected cab voice recorder similar to those in commercial airliners. And it noted that an automatic system called positive train control would have intervened to prevent the collision by taking control of the train when Sanchez failed to stop at the red signal.
POSITIVE TRAIN CONTROL
Positive train control is an old idea in railroading. It had been on the NTSB’s “Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements” for 18 years at the time of the accident. Now, thanks to Robert Sanchez, it would become a reality. Briefly explained, it is an interconnected network of digital data and controls. It allows remote operators to take control of trains from on-board engineers if necessary. It includes these basic elements.
Global positioning system receivers on trains to continuously track movement.
Computers on trains that record data and send information to displays in locomotive cabs about train position, speed, length, and weight; route speed limits; actual and recommended throttle and brake settings; sensor readings on cars; signal and switch settings; and more.
Wayside devices that monitor signals, switches, and track alignment, and can detect overheated brakes, cracked wheels, rock slides, and other problems.
Wireless interfaces on throttle and brake controls that allow remote control.
Computers and displays in railroad operations centers that show the schedule, position, speed, and control settings of each train in the network and allow remote command of train and track functions.13
Modern train control is technically complex, but the basic invention, electro-mechanical automatic braking, came around 1900. In 1920 the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) ordered 49 railroads to install it on passenger lines to reduce accidents and fatalities. Though effective, the systems were very expensive to put in and maintain.
When interstate highways spread in the 1950s, rail traffic faced more competition from trucking. Revenues fell, tracks were abandoned, railroads failed or merged, and the ICC let companies discard the controls. After that, human error regularly led to avoidable fatalities from train collisions, overspeed derailments, and runaway locomotives in work zones. Periodic headline accidents that killed passengers led to regular calls for reinstating automatic controls. However, little was done because the railroads argued it was unaffordable.
When the National Transportation Safety Board placed positive train controls on its “Most Wanted” list in 1990 it revived the issue. Congress considered action, but retreated when the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) did a study showing that the cost of controls far outweighed safety benefits.14 The FRA is part of the Department of Transportation. As an executive branch agency its administrator is nominated page 346by the president and approved by the Senate and, when appointed, reports to the Secretary of Transportation. Congress created the agency in 1966 to regulate railroad safety. It also administers federal programs that support railroads and promote passenger service, giving it close ties with the industry it regulates. Most of its 900 employees have worked for railroads.
After the early 1990s there were short bouts of Congressional interest in train controls after major rail accidents. In 2003 Congress asked the FRA for an updated benefit–cost study. It showed that the costs still far outweighed safety benefits.15 In 2005 the agency issued a rule to encourage voluntary use of train controls.16 Lacking a mandate, railroads installed automatic systems on only about 4,000 track miles, most in the Northeast.
A few legislators remained interested in train controls. When the Metrolink crash occurred, there were two moribund bills in Congress, a House bill requiring controls on several high-risk routes and a Senate bill seeking only further study. Neither was headed to passage because of opposition from railroad lobbyists.
The Metrolink fatalities mobilized California’s two Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, who zoomed in like superheroes on a mission. Within a week they introduced an amendment to the House bill, which had already passed, ordering railroads to install positive train control. In remarks on the Senate floor, Senator Feinstein grew irate and accused the railroads of “criminal negligence.”
The accident happened because of a resistance in the railroad community in America to utilizing existing technology to produce a fail-safe control of trains … Over the years the railroads resisted, saying these systems are too expensive. Well, how expensive is the loss of human life? The cost of any system doesn’t come close to the cost of the lives that were lost this past Friday. 17
A week later she and Senator Boxer invited Joseph H. Boardman, administrator of the FRA, to a public hearing. Senator Feinstein opened the hearing by saying she was upset with “lobbying behind the scenes to prevent an early date” for installation of train controls. Boardman explained to the two senators why “progress has not been faster,” namely because of “limited availability of needed radio spectrum,” concerns about “interoperability,” and “braking algorithms that need refinement.”18 These technicalities must have sounded like excuses to Senator Boxer and they drew a sharp rebuke.
What powers do you have? What’s your job? You’re sitting there saying you can’t tell them to do anything? … You have the power, you don’t want to do it, you’d rather work for the railroads.19
After the hearing Senator Feinstein called the FRA “an old boys club.” “I think they sit down and talk to the railroads,” she said. “I think they do what the railroads want.”20 In floor remarks she tried to stir her Senate colleagues to action with a moral argument.
When we know there is global positioning that can be in place to shut down the freight train and the passenger train before they run into each other and we do nothing about it, then I believe this body is also culpable and negligent.21
This idea echoes Aristotle, who held that ethical decisions are a matter of choice and only ignorance of facts or lack of freedom to act excuses a person from choosing the ethical action.22 Senator Feinstein deprived the senators of either excuse. But many Senate Republicans were unmoved and still tried to stop the bill, believing it imposed a net economic burden on society. Their effort to thwart its passage page 347with a filibuster was defeated, and on October 1, 2008, just 19 days after the Metrolink accident, the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 became law.23 The roll call was 74 to 24. Every Democrat voted for it and all the “nay” votes were Republicans. These are the main provisions of the 123-page statute.
Mandatory installation by 2015 of positive train control on rail lines shared by freight and passenger trains, on “main lines” carrying more than 5 million tons of freight yearly, and on any stretch of track carrying substances such as ammonia and chlorine that pose toxic inhalation hazards.
Rules designed to prevent crew fatigue, including prohibition of train crews working more than 12 hours a day or 266 hours a month.
A long list of new mandates for the Federal Railroad Administration including certifying conductors, monitoring locomotive radio traffic, and studying the safety of antique locomotives used for rides at railroad museums.
Measures to improve safety at railroad–highway crossings.
Assistance to families of victims of passenger train accidents.
A program of annual $50 million grants to railroads for safety improvements.
REGULATORS GO TO WORK
Like many laws passed by Congress, the Rail Safety Improvement Act is a mixture of specifics and generalities. It was very precise in dictating work-hour rules for train crews under varying circumstances, even prohibiting companies from telephoning or paging crew members at home during mandatory 10-hour rest periods. Yet it also set broad new requirements such as positive train control that left much to the discretion of the Federal Railroad Administration. In fact, it gave the agency so much to do it authorized hiring 200 new employees. Quickly, the agency went to work.
Within a week of the bill’s passage it issued an emergency order prohibiting use of wireless electronic page 348devices in locomotive cabs and elsewhere on or near operating trains.24 It cited seven accidents besides the Metrolink collision where cell phone use distracted engineers. Two led to fatalities. It also listed examples of unsafe behavior observed by its staff. Some of the stories were incredible.
An FRA deputy regional administrator was conducting an initial preemployment interview over the telephone with a locomotive engineer who was applying for an FRA operating practices inspector position. The deputy regional administrator heard a train horn in a two long, one short, and one long pattern and asked the candidate if he was operating a locomotive. The candidate replied that he was, and the deputy regional administrator terminated the telephone call. The candidate was not selected.25
The agency also set to work on a rule for implementing positive train controls. It began late in 2008 by convening a working group with representatives from 18 organizations including railroads, unions, suppliers, and the FRA. This group met five times. Between meetings it broke into task forces. Disagreements between participants were resolved by FRA decisions. The agency also began a new benefit–cost study.
Within six months it submitted a proposed rule to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) along with its benefit–cost study. The 167-page study revealed a stunning excess of costs over benefits. Depending on net present value assumptions, the costs of positive train controls over 20 years were estimated at between $10 billion and $14 billion. The safety benefits were only $608 million to $931 million. Under either assumption the cost of controls was more than 15 times the benefits.
Although OIRA’s job is to make sure regulations have a net benefit for society, its hands were tied because of the congressional mandate. It approved the proposed rule and the FRA published a 79-page Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the Federal Register.26 This opened a 30-day comment period. Written comments from anyone could be entered on the Federal eRulemaking Portal mailed, faxed, or hand-delivered to the agency. During this comment period the FRA also held a one-day hearing at a Washington hotel to give railroads, unions, and state transportation officials a chance to comment before regulators.
When all comments were in, the agency reconvened its working group to review them and consider changes to the proposed rule. It took six more months. The final rule was published in the Federal Register on January 15, 2010, and later entered in the Code of Federal Regulations.27 It set standards for the design, functioning, certification, and maintenance of positive train control systems.
It also responded to comments. For example, large railroad companies objected to a requirement for dual displays in locomotive cabs for both engineers and brakemen. The agency responded that both were necessary to ensure safety. General Electric, which sells equipment to the railroads, objected to the agency’s insistence on approving entire systems and asked it to approve individual parts or components instead. The agency rejected this suggestion as complicating and more expensive. Chemical shippers asked to exclude rail lines from controls if they carried fewer than 100 tank cars of toxic chemicals a year. The agency refused, saying that was contrary to the safety mission Congress had given it.
The final rule also revised the 20-year benefit–cost projection, making it even less favorable. Depending on net present value assumptions, the costs would be $9.6 billion to $13.3 billion and the benefits $440 million to $674 million, a ratio of more than 20:1 in either case.
America now has another expensive regulatory program, one that will raise shipping rates, consumer prices, and rail passenger fares. Railroads are now more heavily regulated in their operations and employee relations. The Federal Railroad Administration grows larger and more powerful. On the other hand, rail passengers are safer, and the railroads may see some efficiency gains. Was the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 justified?
Trains are dangerous. Exhibit 1 shows an annual total of between 700 and 950 railroad fatalities over the past decade, but few of them were passengers killed in train accidents—only 85 over the 10-year page 349period. Most fatalities are trespassers who ride trains or enter track corridors. Hundreds more are motorists hit at crossings.
EXHIBIT 1 Railroad Fatalities: 1999–2009
During this decade there were between 700 and 950 deaths each year due to train operations. Total deaths are the sum of the lines for trespasser fatalities, rail worker fatalities, highway crossing fatalities, and passenger fatalities. More than 90 percent of all railroad fatalities are trespassers on railroad rights-of-way and motorists killed in crossing accidents.
In 2009, for example, there were 713 train fatalities. Of these only three were passengers killed in accidents. Of the rest, 446 were people trespassing on tracks,28 248 were motorists at rail crossings, and 16 were on-duty railroad employees. A nationwide system of train controls might have saved the three passengers and some of the 16 railroad workers killed on duty, but would have done nothing to save the other 697 people.
In absolute numbers, motor vehicles kill far more people than passenger trains, to be exact 33,960 more in 2009, but they are safer per mile traveled. In 2009 the fatality rate per 100 million miles traveled was 6.07 for passenger trains compared with 1.10 for motor vehicles.29
In the FRA’s benefit–cost calculations, the safety benefits of positive train controls were $440 million to $674 million over 20 years. It assumed that train controls would lead to a 60 percent reduction in rail accident costs including casualties, train delay, emergency response, and track and equipment damage.30 A statistical life was valued at $6 million. The study also noted other potential benefits but did not monetize them. Possible business benefits for the railroads include the ability to run more trains, greater reliability, and diesel fuel savings; a possible benefit for society is reduced pollution from diesel exhaust. However, the agency concluded that such benefits were uncertain and, even if they appeared, would not fill the gap between costs and benefits for 20 to 25 years. For example, trains may have to run more slowly for years as systems are introduced.31
The expense to railroads is greater because final cost estimates for positive train controls were between $9.6 billion and $13.3 billion over 20 years. These include primarily wayside and locomotive components and continuing maintenance. For example, the railroads must equip roughly 30,000 locomotives at an estimated $55,000 each. The FRA also predicted that the railroads will spend 1,729,848 hours each year completing new paperwork requirements.32 Altogether this is a formidable cost burden and an expansion of the regulatory burden on an industry that often struggles for profitability, all for a safety rule where, as the FRA concludes, “the cost-to-benefit comparison … is not favorable.”33
Congress required swift installation of train controls on roughly 69,000 miles of track. Suppliers such as Lockheed Martin and General Electric have to rush component design. Railroads must make massive, unanticipated shifts in capital expenditures. In the past they were criticized for rejecting investments in train controls because capital returns were higher for expenditures on mergers and track equipment. Now there is no choice. One company, CSX Transportation, expects to spend $1.2 billion to comply with the new rule.34
MEANWHILE AT METROLINK
Metrolink made changes after the accident. It issued an emergency order against crew use of electronic devices, added a second engineer in locomotives, installed brighter signal bulbs, and reduced speeds in some zones. It enlarged its supervisory structure, adding four new managers to oversee operations and rules compliance, and it asked Connex to add a new vice president for safety. Efficiency testing of crews was stepped up. Eventually, it replaced its chief executive and ended its contract with Connex, giving its operations to Amtrak instead.
In 2009 Metrolink installed automatic braking equipment at 43 locations along its routes. This is an interim measure until it puts positive train controls in place, which it has agreed to do by 2012, three years before the federal 2015 deadline.
It also put inward-looking video cameras in its locomotive cabs, making it the only railroad to respond to the NTSB’s recommendation. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, which represents Metrolink engineers, sued but could not stop the action. The union said cameras were “punitive in nature” and breached the right to privacy found in the California constitution.35 It recommended equipment to jam cell phones instead, but Metrolink continues to use the cameras. In 2010 Metrolink took delivery of 117 new coaches designed to protect passengers by absorbing energy.
Since the Chatsworth Station accident there have been no Metrolink passenger fatalities from train accidents.