The Human Cost of a Do-Nothing Congress

The recent train crash which killed 2 in South Carolina raises once again the question of why railroads throughout the United States don’t have positive train control. Positive train control is a technology that relies on GPS, wireless radio and computers to monitor train positions. The technology is capable of automatically stopping and/ or slowing trains that are in danger of colliding, derailing from excessive speed or entering areas where track crews are working. The South Carolina wreck would have been prevented by positive train control technology.

Positive train control technology has been available for many years. In 2008, following a train wreck in California that killed 25 people, Congress passed a law requiring that the technology be installed on all tracks carrying passenger trains. This law was passed over the objections of the railroad companies. Immediately after the law passed, railroads began to lobby for extensions and delays. Railroads were then given 7 more years to start using the technology. The railroads dragged their feet and lobbied Congress for more time. Congress then extended the deadline for 3 more years, to 12/31/2018, with the option to grant railroads that show progress an additional 2 years, to 12/31/2020. Nevertheless, some railroads have already said they can’t meet the deadline.


An overwhelming majority of passenger deaths since 2008 could have been prevented by positive train control.


When you hear politicians boast about easing safety rules and regulations to make things easier for businesses to operate, there is often a human cost to that public policy decision. This is definitely one such instance. The truth is that railroads and many other businesses won’t take the steps necessary to make things safer unless and until it is cost effective to do so. By that I mean, when the cost of paying claims and buying insurance is lower than the cost of implementing safety measures, most companies choose to continue to do business as usual. That is exactly why railroads don’t upgrade many dangerous crossings. When too many deaths occur at the crossing, something will be done, but not otherwise.


It’s long past time for Congress to act on this no-brainer public safety issue.


Photo Credit: Martin Winkler