Thursday, August 31, 2006

Out There On The Edge of Control - NGR: Third Section

We were prepared to go into the not-so-nutty nuts and bolts on the signal/dispatch/schedule side of Next Generation Rail, but things intervene.

Much flak has come our way about the concept of Driver Elimination: Trains can be run like a DCC-controlled model train layout with no engineer on board.

First, we are not against any of the Brotherhoods. We see this more as easing the stress of driving a train, reducing it more to monitoring systems somewhat like the flight engineer on a large aircraft.

The biggest argument against Driver Elimination has been economic. Why eliminate engineers (drivers) when we don't need to? This is kind of strange, as reduction of employee rolls is seen by corporate management as a way to increase the bottom line. But most who have approached me see Driver Elimination as costly. "Why invest in all that extra technology when everything works right as it is?"

This is a spurious argument and one that needs closer attention. Why invest in the wheel, when dragging stuff along the ground on sticks works perfectly well? Why invest in fast horses when slow oxen still get us there? Why invest in steam locomotion when horses are adequate to the task? Why fly when you can walk just as far; it just takes longer? Why watch TV when you can get the same information from a newspaper? Have we given this argument the attention it deserves? You bet! It deserves no more.

We don't get progress in any form if we stick our head in a sack. Change is good. What doesn't change, stagnates.

Some have also approached us and said that computer control of locomotives can only be justified from the point of view of safety. Only if we eliminate driver error can we justify the cost. We also disagree with this argument.

Technology has its ups and downs where safety is concerned. In railroading, the historic advances in safety were knuckle couplers, air brakes, and telegraphically controlled signals. Each also came with its own set of potential errors. We think most of our readers know what these were. In general, however, once everybody learned the new technology and how to deal with the new potential errors, the technology made things safer. More importantly, however, each of these advances (and a hundred other technological advances we can name in other forms of transportation - challenge us, please) made for a better transportation system in general. In Passenger Rail, anything that made for a smoother, faster, more on-time and perhaps coincidentally safer ride was well worth the dollars spent. This is true in other modes as well.

Finally, a lot of people have suggested that there is probably no way to fully integrate driverless locomotives into a railroad system where switching and shunting has to be done on or near the same tracks where scheduled service is happening. The cost of segregating these operations becomes high when separate infrastructure has to be provided.


But the reason it is hogwash has to wait until we get a chance to write about track and signals, and the technology that, we think, could be used to enhance both freight and Passenger Rail and to increase the efficiency of our infracture from three to tenfold.

Watch for our next blog on the subject of Next Generation Rail.

(Our apologies to any readers interested in our other sites and blogs: We just haven't had the time lately. We have kept Passenger Rail as our priority. More soon.)

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -
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