Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Positive Train Control - Revisited!

Port Townsend, today. I just spent some time watching a gaggle of private yachts transit Mira Flores Locks at the Panama Canal. The Canal Authority put in a high-resolution camera last year, and it delivers a heck of a picture, even under sodium lighting at night. (Ed. Note: Watch "progress bars" top of frame. Camera updates ever 30 seconds!)

With increasing pressure by the Obama Administration to implement Positive Train Control systems, America’s railroads are researching and evaluating what is turning out to be multitude of systems, each one hoping to be selected.

There is a lot of money to be made in system installation, system maintenance and system training. Oh, to be young again!

And this flood of systems development activity (SDA) has resulted in an alphabet soup of acronyms, (ASOA) for example:

  • CAS - Collision Avoidance System
  • CBMT - Communications Based Train Management System
  • ETMS - Electronic Train Management System
  • ITCS - Incremental Train Control System
  • OTC - Optimize Train Control
  • VTMS - Virtual Train Management System
And my favorite, ACSES - Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System (similar to Robo Cop?)

Kansas City Southern (KCS), the sixth largest US railroad, has been numero uno in a joint venture with the Panama Canal Railway since 1998. The 47-mile long KCS joint venture recently completed a total upgrading of the coast-to-coast rail link and is 100% equipped with state of the art computerized Positive Train Control (PTC.)

The Panama Canal Railroad chose Quantum Engineering’s TSPTC - Train Sentinel® Positive Train Control. [Ed. Note: Quantum Engineering sold to Safetran in 2008.]

As an aside, I found it interesting that many cruise ship passengers are faced with a tough choice! Ride the cruise ship through the canal, or hop off and ride a first class passenger train along side the canal! The Panama Canal Railway Company acquired a 1938 Southern Pacific Dome Car, the “Rio Chagres,” and remodeled it at a cost of almost $1 Million!

Reading the descriptions of these positive train control systems and the mountains of analytical statistics they can generate, I get a sense of overwhelming ones self with reams of operational data. I dunno. Are we complicating life, rather than simplifying it?

And how does the Manifest Movement Specialist (MMS), also known as the locomotive engineer, react when thundering down the track and confronted with this message on his computer screen?

The requirement for Positive Train Control seems to revolve around preventing train accidents, including head on collisions, side swipes, and over-taking collisions. When one reads through the "official inquiries" and "NTSB Findings" a pattern emerges which would suggest, in my opinion, that the answer to reducing these incidents rests not with applying technology, but with dealing with the human condition. Making sure crews have stable work shifts, plenty of rest between assignments, comfortable accommodations for over-night turns, and an aggressively monitored health program.

Seems to me, that would be much better in the long run, promoting personal health and safety. Throwing technology at human conditions isn't an answer. A GPS dome on the cab of a locomotive still doesn't do a damn thing for a hogger who got a total of five hours out of the saddle, running sniffles, and upset family life.

But then what the hell do I know about running a railroad!

I am ever so grateful to have known some of those good old boys of yesteryear, who moved a heck of a lot of tonnage without running into or over each other, guided by an iron-fisted dispatcher, a set of flimsies, a timetable, an authorized timepiece and good old-fashioned common sense (GOFCS.)

See also: "Positive Train Control."

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