Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Does the Left Hand Know?

As I write this, several things are going on with railroads that can be lumped under the tentative heading: Government Intervention.  Two of these things will affect Passenger Rail.  One has grown out of what I believe to have been a sincere desire on the part of some in government to improve Passenger Rail safety.

Let's talk about that one first.  Just days after the 2008 collision of a Metrolink commuter train with a Union Pacific freight near Chatsworth, California, the government mandated that PTC be in place on something like 60 thousand miles of railroad by 2015.  PTC is Positive Train Control, a collision avoidance system that, on the surface and to Congressmen, appears like a simple concept.  So not only did they mandate this system and set a somewhat arbitrary deadline, but they told the railroads that they'd have to pay for it.  No federal budget item for PTC!

As an aside, let me note that Congress is seldom anything but superficial when it comes to passing laws, especially if those laws mandate an end result that will require anything of a highly technical nature to get to the result.  This bunch knows what they want and when they want it, and you, by cracky, had better get it done! (See Affordable Healthcare Act)

Getting back to my point, some "parts" of government are starting to understand that PTC isn't going to happen; at least not without some more hefty Government Intervention.  The price tag is already on the fancy side of the tracks of $5 billion--with a B.  If you stop and use your head, you're going to realize that this is nothing like an aircraft collision avoidance system.  For one thing, with the mass of railroad trains being in the neighborhood of millions--with an M--of tons, radar just can't stop a moving train by the time it's close enough on the ground to be seen on radar.  This has to be a digital radio--wireless--system that depends on computers on the ground, in centralized locations, and on board every train, as well as the global positioning system, communicating at all times and in all locations.  ON THE GROUND!  (What if those satellites get too old?  Stay tuned.)  And it has to be overlaid on existing signal systems, at least to begin with, or the costs triple or more.

So now the railroads want to build radio towers for all these wireless signals along their rights of way.  But wait . . . doesn't the FCC have to approve them?  U-betcha!  Not that the FCC can't ramp up, but they're getting into the game way late; they just realized it.  So no towers are going up.  Then there's . . . I bet you think I'm going to rag on the Environmentalists . . . you'd be wrong.  Something called the National Historic Preservation act gives the Indian nations the right to inspect every site for possible Indian artifacts.  So call out the brigades of Native American inspectors, you say?  At current estimates and rates of inspection by qualified tribal personnel, this is going to take 50 years--with a Y.  Thank Congress for thinking things through!  (Not to be crude, but here goes:  Most of Congress thinks a global position is something ENTIRELY different.)

Then there's the clamoring in Congress for somebody to re-regulate freight rates for those shippers who feel overcharged or under served.  Congress, in it's infinite inability to think things through, will probably do it, forgetting that before deregulation of the railroads there was the distinct possibility that 2013 would not SEE any private railroads running in America.  Perhaps that's the goal.  In any case, imposing higher cost or lower profitability on freight railroads will make it harder for passenger systems to negotiate track use and dispatching, and possibly cause the freight railroads to cross their legs and refuse any and all intercourse with passenger systems.  Between this and the PTC fiasco, on which the bigger railroads have already spent a wad of cash, the butt cheeks of the railroads are tight enough to hold up those transmitter poles all by themselves.

© 2013 - C. A. Turek - mistertrains@gmail.com

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