Two Train Wrecks

So you won’t be surprised that the final cost of PTC will be triple earlier estimates

By Dave Skinner

Railroad matters have always interested me. A train set led to summer railroad work, which in turn enabled me to pay cash for college, where I learned a big word:

Logistics: The “management of the flow of things between point of origin and point of consumption.”

How things “flow” around the world – on our oceans, in the sky, our rivers, highways, and best of all, those mighty arteries of steel, matters to all of us.

One issue affecting “flow” is Positive Train Control, or PTC. In a nutshell, PTC is supposed to make trains smart so they don’t bash into one another if the engineer is a moron.

In 2008, a head-on collision killed 25 people and hurt 135 at Chatsworth, California. The National Transportation Safety Board determined the engineer of the Metrolink commuter train was texting. He sent his last text 22 seconds before the collision, blowing through a red signal and a siding switch at almost exactly the same instant he hit the send key. The NTSB report noted “text messaging can lead to performance decrements related to distraction and inattention.” Can?

So, Congress mandated nationwide installation of PTC by the end of 2015. That ain’t gonna happen, for several reasons.

First, PTC hadn’t been invented yet. The railroads slapped together a PTC protocol and then standardized it.

Second, the railroads needed new radio bandwidth. Getting it from the Federal Communications Commission was a bureaucratic mess.

Third, when it came time to start poking 22,000 trackside antennas into the ground, it was learned that Indian tribes would have to be consulted and sign off on antenna sites.

So you won’t be surprised that the final cost of PTC will be triple earlier estimates, between $10 and $14 billion (or more, depending on who you ask) with annual maintenance alone of $1 billion. The Federal Railroad Administration stated PTC installation could save between seven and 22 lives a year – the maintenance alone comes at a cost of over $45 million per life “saved.” And guess what? The Department of Transportation has calculated the value of saving a life at $9.1 million! Heck, for that, run me over and give the money to my family.

In its own time, PTC would make sense on some lines, especially passenger. But now it’s just a classic example of stupid lawmaking enacted as reaction to a crisis, causing another crisis.

Kalispell’s “rail park” proposal also rubs me wrong. First, pulling up track is a last resort to anyone interested in diverse economic development. Second, if “we” build it, will “they” come? I seriously doubt it.

Kalispell’s place as the Flathead’s geographic center (a day’s horse-and-wagon ride from all points of the compass) saved it when Great Northern moved its main line, because back then, every single mile away from the railroad was a big deal. But today, it matters more that autos and trucks have good, safe, simple access to the transfer point.

On that basis, neither CHS nor Northwest Drywall have a screaming need to move. If either did, it would make much more sense to move the extra 10 miles to Columbia Falls, even Half Moon, where road access is certainly no worse. More important, a move to Columbia Falls would put both businesses directly on BNSF’s transcontinental main line.

One could even argue that a better place for a “rail park” in a “brownfield” needing “redevelopment” would be at the old Forest Products mill site west of Meridian. The west-side bypass is a stone’s throw away, for one thing.

Finally, has anyone considered whether a rail park can support the Kalispell branch if Plum Creek closes the Evergreen mill?

Now, I understand grant money (other people’s) could be “leveraged” even though the odds of scoring the big one (the $10 million in “federal” TIGER dough) are pretty small, with 800 applications against $475 million nationwide last time around.

But the hard truth is, if the Kalispell rail park idea made any kind of business or logistic sense at all, it would have been completed years ago, using private money.

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