Last week’s tragic train derailment which killed at least three people, and injured hundreds more, highlights a very important issue that must be addressed. Reluctance for organizations to adopt new technologies is very common in almost every industry. This unwillingness comes from a number of different reasons, the most common being cost.
Positive Train Control or PTC is the technology designed to act as a safety net to prevent human errors which account for roughly 40% of train accidents. The technology uses GPS, wireless radio, and computers systems to stop trains from derailing, speeding, or colliding. PTC came about in the early 1990’s but didn’t gain traction or national attention until September 2008. This came as a response to a tragic railroad collision near Los Angeles which left 25 dead. Consequently, Congress moved to pass new rail safety laws that set a deadline of December 15, 2015 for the implementation of PTC technology across most of the US rail network. This was later extended at the request of many railroad companies to December 31, 2018.
So why the delay in implementing PTC you might ask? “The reason why they’ve been given so many extensions has been money,” said Mary Schiavo, a former Department of Transportation inspector general. Many who oppose the mandate also question the validity of the technology. A 12-year study by the Federal Railroad Association concluded that the savings from the number of accidents avoided would not be enough to cover the costs of implementing PTC across Class I railroads (69% of U.S. freight rail mileage & 90% employees). Furthermore, in the 20 years from 1987 to 2007, 27 deaths from railroad accidents where recorded and the response to these accidents were all handled with changes to operating rules rather than implementation of technology. And now we find ourselves in 2017 with more people losing their lives to railroad accidents.
Cost benefits are a tricky balancing act for anybody in the decision making process. When it comes to safety however, a policy of ‘expecting the worst’ might be advised. Individuals in decision making positions should not take the adoption of technology lightly. No individual is solely responsible for the slow implementation of these technologies but rather a culmination of missteps and cold feet throughout the industry.