NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Simple Logic Derails Congress' Positive Train Control Initiative

May 21, 2015

Is there a more absurd technology than positive train control, which Congress imposed as an unfunded mandate on railroads in 2008, and which supposedly would have prevented last week's Philly Amtrak crash? Except it did not since its implementation has been draggy and its design so clearly inferior to cheaper, faster, more up-to-date solutions.

Railroads are already woefully behind a December 2015 deadline, and not just because of the cost and complexity (most of the technology had yet to be invented). Another factor undoubtedly is a lack of enthusiasm for what they know to be a burdensome, backward-looking, white elephantine approach.

At a cost of $13 billion or more, they must install tens of thousands of radio antennas along the track to inform a computerized locomotive about speed restrictions and other conditions ahead. A special challenge for Amtrak and other passenger lines has been obtaining the necessary radio spectrum. A three-year wrangle with the Federal Communications Commission and private license holders is why the system, already installed along the crash route, was not yet turned on by Amtrak.

Meanwhile, aboard every Amtrak train undoubtedly nowadays are hundreds of passenger smartphones constantly broadcasting their location using GPS over the same commercial airwaves that provide increasingly reliable call and broadband connectivity to the average consumer. More than this, a train runs on rails and does not have the opportunity to deviate or take wrong turns and detours the way a car does. So why not program speed limits of a given route into the train itself, as Google does with map information programmed into its self-driving car?

Positive train control is a classic example of what you get when Congress tries to dictate solutions to commercial and technological problems.

Source: Holman W. Jenkies, "How Congress Railroaded the Railroads," Wall Street Journal, May 19, 2015.


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