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Leveraging the Safety Benefits of Technology, Rail Trends, New York, NY
Deborah A. P. Hersman
Leveraging the Safety Benefits of Technology, Rail Trends, New York, NY

Thank you, Steve, (Bolte) for that gracious introduction and thank you, Progressive Railroading and Tony Hatch, for the great work putting together this valuable forum.

It's great to be with railroaders - industry leaders who do so much to make railroads safe and successful. And, it's simply great to be in New York City and to have traveled here by train.

Yes, we were supposed to be here last month, but Mother Nature had other plans. And didn't we see the importance of transportation, and especially rail transportation, in the aftermath of Super Storm Sandy? We also saw the resilience of New Yorkers and the commitment of the transportation industry to get this city and its people on the move again.

Today, I will tell you a tale of technology — past and present — and highlight the many benefits it has brought — and can bring — to railroading.

The history of railroading is a story of immense safety strides and technological triumph.

Look at how far railroads have come in safety. For instance, at the turn of the last century — from 1882 to 1912 — nearly half of all U.S. deaths were from railroad accidents. Typhoid fever, a distant second, accounted for just 7 percent.

In 1889, when the newly established ICC released the first national report of railroad accident statistics, one out of every 375 railroad employees had been killed the previous year. One out of 35 injured.

Railroads were the nation's largest employer — that meant the annual death or maiming of tens of thousands of workers, passengers and trespassers.

A century later, those numbers are a fraction of what they once were. Total fatalities number in the hundreds and are primarily due to grade-crossing accidents, like the one that we investigated last month in Midland, Texas, when a UP train struck a veterans parade float and the one that happened last year in Miriam, Nevada, when a truck hit an Amtrak train. Both collisions resulted in multiple fatalities. Tomorrow, we'll determine the probable cause of the Miriam accident and issue safety recommendations.

Here's how far railroads have come in safety: As the Association of American Railroads reported, "In overall terms, 2011 was the safest year ever for U.S. railroads."

Congratulations! You have achieved much.

As you know, many safety advances are thanks to your improved operating practices and strong leadership. But, I would say, the history of railroad safety parallels the history of technology.

Look at those early days. At the end of the 19th century, railroad talk could sound like going to war. Here's how the editor of the Railroad Trainmen's Journal put it: "It is as though the railroad men are an army going on duty in the morning, and knowing that by eventide five of their number must die and fifty be crippled."

Five and fifty. Every day. The greatest dangers: manually coupling cars and climbing on top to operate hand brakes. Falls from cars and striking overhead obstructions caused nearly half of all trainmen fatalities.

Yet, technology offered a cure: Automatic couplers and air brakes.

But, the railroads resisted putting automatic couplers on freight cars. They thought links and pins worked just fine. Instead, the railroads focused on making changes to prevent accidents to passengers. That made business sense. As the Railroad Gazette: "If the much more numerous accidents to the employees could be made equally costly to the companies, there is good reason to believe that much more pains would be taken."

But, much more pains were taken.

By Uncle Sam.

After overcoming resistance from the railroads and a lengthy Senate debate, Congress passed the Safety Appliance Act in 1893. It required companies to install automatic couplers and air brakes on their rolling stock.

The Safety Appliance Act became effective in 1900.

And there were benefits. As Historian Mark Aldrich wrote in Death Rode the Rails: "The application of air brakes and automatic couplers remains one of the most spectacular safety investments ever made by American industry."


But it wasn't just a safety investment. Air brakes, in particular, increased productivity and paid off in longer and heavier freight cars and in quicker yard work.

The safety investment also led to attracting a higher caliber of employee. Improved safety turned railroading from a job to a profession.

Think about it. Without the reduced risks and greater productivity from safety investments in air brakes, and, later, new signal systems, there may never have been the golden age of railroading.

Rail buffs well recall that era — passenger trains like the 20th Century Limited, the Silver Meteor, the Golden State Limited as well as trains that carried candidates and presidents, notably U.S. Car No. 1, the only private coach railroad car specifically designed for the president of the United States.

One city block away from where we meet today is the Waldorf Astoria. How many of you know about Track 61 and the secret train platform that allowed VIPs to privately enter the hotel?

Most famously, FDR used Track 61; perhaps to hide that he was in a wheelchair. It certainly was convenient. His Pierce Arrow could drive off the train, onto the platform and into an elevator.

Those were the days.

Yes, greater safety from technology just may have helped bring the golden age into the station.

The first half of the 20th century saw a progression of technological advancements that improved safety and contributed to productivity and efficiency.

To be sure, Uncle Sam was "engineering" many of the changes. Twentieth-century legislation covered block-signal systems, signal inspection, a safety appliances amendment, and more. It also addressed the transport of explosives and other dangerous articles, followed by regulation for hazardous materials.

In the long view of rail history, economics is the driver, but there were times when safety was the leader and business benefits followed.

What about today? Is there something this century that will be a boon, the way air brakes were for last century's railroads?

In the NTSB's nearly half century of investigating railroad accidents, including hundreds of train collisions and over-speed derailments, we have seen mechanical defects, maintenance issues and track failures, but the biggest safety challenge is human error - and that's the area where technology can be so critical.

Since I have been on the Board, the NTSB has completed 15 investigations of rail accidents that could have been prevented or mitigated with positive train control. These 15 accidents claimed 50 lives and injured 942 more.

The damages totaled hundreds of millions of dollars.

The most deadly, of course, the 2008 Metrolink-UP collision near Chatsworth, California, that killed 25 people and injured dozens. The force of the collision caused the Metrolink locomotive to telescope into the lead passenger coach by about 52 feet.

The cause: the Metrolink engineer's failure to observe and appropriately respond to a red signal. Why? Human error. He was texting on his cell-phone.

Within weeks of the Chatsworth crash, congress passed, and the president signed into law, the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 calling for the implementation of PTC.

The NTSB first recommended PTC in 1970 — the year after Neil Armstrong took his small step on the moon, eight years after President Kennedy issued the challenge.

Now, it's 2012, 42 years later. And the rail industry still hasn't fully embraced PTC.

Today, it would not take eight years to land on the moon. We have more computing power and technology in our pockets than anyone at the Kennedy Space Center imagined possible.

We have the technology to take that giant leap for railroad safety.

What is needed is the will.

The railroad community should have solved this by now. Some of you have been involved in PTC pilots or test projects dating back decades.

At the same time, we keep investigating deadly crashes, like the May 2011 rear-end collision between two CSX freight trains in Mineral Springs, North Carolina, and last June's collision of two UP trains in Goodwell, Oklahoma. These collisions killed five crewmembers, destroyed cars and goods, and put tracks out of service for days.

We can do better. You can do better.

That's why in developing our 2013 Most Wanted List, we decided it was time to refocus on rail safety and PTC.

And, yes, as I said at the outset, you — railroaders — have come a long way.

You are safer and stronger.

But you have so much farther to go. Railroads have so many growth opportunities. You have a much bigger role to play in our nation's economy and future.

You could be carrying more of the load.

And, carrying it more safely and more efficiently.

That's where PTC comes in. It can be the 21st century equivalent of the many benefits the railroads gained from automatic couplers and air brakes.

As Steve Ditmeyer said at AREMA last year, in addition to safety benefits, PTC could be key to: "reducing delays and costs, raising effective capacity, increasing reliability, improving customer satisfaction, improving energy utilization, reducing emissions, increasing security, and making railways more economically viable."

That's a lot.

Yes, I recognize there are challenges in implementing PTC. But, a fully implemented PTC is a win-win - a win for society and for the railroads.

As Ditmeyer concluded: "Railways have the opportunity, should they elect to take it, to maximize the benefits from the investments they are required to make in PTC."

Yes, railroads have the opportunity. PTC can help with what Tony (Hatch) calls the "railroad renaissance" - a renaissance where the railroads operate more safely and more efficiently and contribute even more to our economy and quality of life.

Who knows? PTC could help usher in this century's golden age of railroads.

Wouldn't that be something?

Now, I'm delighted to take your questions.