In view of the recent rail tragedies in Quebec (a runaway freight train), Spain (a passenger train going too fast), and Switzerland (a passenger train involved in a collision), it’s a good time to remind ourselves that trains are the safest way to travel and to ship. The root causes of these incidents won’t be known for many months, and I am not going to discuss or speculate on how they happened or why.
In the United States, our rail network is the envy of the world’s shippers and promises to provide the much-needed 21st century capacity to move goods cheaper, faster, and safer than via trucks on our over-congested, increasingly worn-out Interstate highway systems. That’s why American railroads like the Norfolk Southern have successfully sold 100 year bonds on Wall Street. That’s why Warren Buffet bought the BNSF Railway. The U.S. rail industry is all privately held and doesn’t ordinarily enjoy government subsidies. Our so-called freight railroads innovate constantly and are building new tank cars to carry crude oil from well to refinery so fast that there might be no need for the controversial Keystone Pipeline project through America’s heartland. Unlike pipelines, trains are flexible and go from anywhere to anywhere where rails exist, and even building new rail lines is much faster than building new pipelines.
The same dynamics are true for passenger trains in the United States, whether via Amtrak, intrastate service like North Carolina’s Piedmont trains between Raleigh and Charlotte, or private passenger trains like the one taking shape in South Florida by Florida East Coast Railway. Our 20th century dependence upon the private automobile won’t go away, and I am not advocating to kill cars, but wouldn’t it be nice to have a comfortable, relaxing alternative for trips of 250-500 miles? Passenger trains do a great job in that niche, and over time America will find ways to fund them where demand exists.
I mentioned constant innovation in the rail industry. Increasingly, locomotives and even individual railcars are equipped with sophisticated GPS and data telemetry systems that monitor and can control every aspect of a train’s movements, including speed. Combined with the federally-mandated PTC (Positive Train Control) system, which automatically stops trains going too fast, these control systems will come on line in the USA in the next few years, making train movements safer than ever. Every day trains are less dependent upon individual human discretion in operation, and railroads are beginning to study how to adapt the airline industry’s cockpit human factor research to the engineers who operate locomotives.
Let us look beyond these rail crashes and learn from them. Railroads are safe and efficient and market-driven to innovate and constantly improve their safety and efficiency. Trains have been an integral, important part of our transportation network for moving people and freight for over 180 years since 1830, yet their role in America’s transportation future is more critical than ever.