Automation guidance wise to include railroads, but more work remains

Automation guidance wise to include railroads, but more work remains
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The U.S. Department of Transportation recently issued new guidance for automation in the transportation sector, appropriately choosing a light-touch set of voluntary standards that will facilitate innovation to the benefit of consumers, workers and safety.

From direction to deploy driverless automobiles on highways in the next 15-20 years, to fostering an environment for trucks to incorporate artificial intelligence into their operations, DOT’s work is “good government” in action, maintaining thorough oversight without installing a system in which private actors can only challenge norms when federal regulators approve. 

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Importantly, the agency also included information and direction regarding railroads in the U.S., a critical yet often overlooked part of the automation discussion. This includes a section addressing a major issue: the need for autonomous vehicles to recognize rail tracks and grade crossings to prevent cars from being hit by trains – an all-too-common occurrence across America.

In 2017 alone, 274 people were killed at highway-rail grade crossings. While railroads continuously work to reduce these incidents, which have decreased annually in recent decades, the numbers remain too high.

The recognition that technologies across multiple transportation modes must interact is an encouraging sign that federal policymakers can keep pace with industry.

But the onus is now on automobile manufacturers and technology companies to heed Secretary Chao’s advice to ensure that semi and fully autonomous vehicles incorporate technology to force cars to stop at grade crossings and prevent them from parking on train tracks.

Department of Transportation data have shown that 94 percent of grade crossing accidents are because of risky behavior – clearly demonstrating the criticality of addressing this challenge.

A freight train cannot stop easily, and these cars will already require technology to account for highway crossings and existing traffic signals, such as stop signs and traffic lights. This performance standard, which U.S. DOT is now advocating for, simply reinforces current standards that automobiles, trucks and busses must come to a stop when crossing train tracks. 

To further improve safety beyond just grade crossings, the private freight rail industry hopes to expand its place in the automation discussion. Doing so could help federal policy keep pace with innovation within the sector and ensure that railroads are on equal footing with their transportation peers, like commercial trucking.

Unbeknownst to many, freight railroads – which operate across a 140,000-mile, privately financed network responsible for moving virtually every sector of the economy – use myriad technologies that improve both the efficiency and effectiveness of incident prevention and mitigation.

The most recent government data show that the industry is amid the safest years on record, including a 41 percent reduction in accidents since 2000. Observers rightly credit investment – averaging $25 billion in recent years – for this success, much of which has gone towards technological solutions such as Positive Train Control (PTC), wayside detectors along track to assess equipment in real time and ground-penetrating radar that similarly allows railroads to evaluate infrastructure conditions.

By the end of 2018 alone, the industry will have PTC – which will automatically stop a train before certain accidents caused by human error can occur – in operation across 80 percent of the miles required to feature the system.

Modernizing the approach at the Federal Railroad Administration to regulate in a way to achieve desirable outcomes, not mandating narrow prescriptions, will generate further gains. The current paradigm, which sometimes fails to define the problem at hand, increases compliance costs and chills innovation.

Ideal policymaking would center on demonstrated outcomes – such as improving safety in a specific area – and be rooted in complete and sound science.

To be able to compete for freight business, namely in traffic that can also be moved via trucks, the ability for railroads to innovate must be seen on equal ground as highway players. Railroads enjoy fixed right of ways, often sealed from other traffic, making it an ideal destination for the type of advancement envisioned by the U.S. DOT in its newest guidance.

The public should be thankful for clear leadership from the U.S. DOT and hope for even more progress in the future.

Ian Jefferies is Senior Vice President of Government Affairs at the Association of American Railroads.