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N.Y. rail crash: How much safety are railroads willing to pay for?

Public TransportationRailway DisastersTransportation DisastersMedia IndustryScienceU.S. Congress

When a train derails and people die, as happened Sunday in New York, there are going to be lots of questions. Eventually, there will be answers to most. But will anyone be able to answer this question: How much are the lives of train passengers worth?

On Tuesday, as investigators probed the crash of a Metro-North Railroad commuter train that left four passengers dead, there were reports that the train’s engineer, William Rockefeller, had “zoned out” at the time of the crash. The train was going 82 miles per hour around a 30-mph curve when it derailed.

As The Times reported: “The local ABC affiliate, WABC-TV, quoted a source as saying that the engineer told investigators he suddenly zoned out during the journey toward Grand Central Terminal. ‘He tells us he was not asleep, but he was not fully there either,’ the source said, according to WABC.”

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In other words, the all-too-familiar “human error” strikes again. Recall the 2008 Metrolink crash in Chatsworth, in which the engineer was sending text messages and missed a stop sign; the resulting head-on crash with another train killed 25 people and injured more than 100.

These are instances in which “positive train control” systems should come into play. These automated systems take over in cases of human error, applying the brakes, say, to slow or stop a train before disaster strikes.

Except such systems aren’t widely in use. And why? Partly because the technology is still being developed. But mostly it’s about money. Estimates on upgrading the nation’s railroads range into the many billions of dollars.

In February 2012, The Times published an Op-Ed, “Train safety goes off the rails,” decrying the lack of action on such a system. Author Emily Dwass, a contributor to FairWarning — a nonprofit, online news organization focused on safety and health issues — blamed foot-dragging in Congress and the railroad industry. She wrote: “Railroad companies and their allies in Congress are trying to delay and whittle down PTC. They complain that the $13-billion price tag for installing and operating PTC is too high, given that accidents are rare. And they say that the current deadline is too soon, especially since experts still are working out some kinks in the technology….

Well, accidents are rare. And $13 billion is a lot of money.

And also, consider this: The damages awarded in the Chatsworth crash — to survivors and the families of the victims — were capped by federal law at $200 million. Which is a lot, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to $13 billion for PTC.

So it’s about money.

But also, consider this, from Dwass’ Op-Ed: “There’s no doubt that positive train control systems are expensive. But, as a report issued Feb. 3 by Moody's Investors Services stated, major railroads, ‘with $60 billion in annual revenue and several billion dollars in cash ... have the wherewithal to cover PTC costs.’”

So, we’re back to my original question: How much are the lives of train passengers worth?

Well, I can’t give you an exact amount — but I am pretty sure that it’s a lot less than $13 billion.

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