The Amtrak crash in Philadelphia has reopened the debate about what can done to make passenger and freight rail safer for both passengers and workers. At recent Senate Commerce Committee and House Transportation and Infrastructure hearings, a number of solutions were proposed, including immediately installing inward-facing cameras in locomotive rail cabs. Proponents of cameras argue that installation of this surveillance equipment would improve railroad safety.
The problem? Inward-facing cameras are only helpful after an accident has occurred. They will do almost nothing to prevent accidents like the one we saw in Philadelphia. The men and women who operate these trains will tell you this. They will also tell you that the best way to make railroads safer is to address the rail industry’s deep-rooted culture of unsafe work practices. For decades, rail industry practices permitted by inadequate government policies and oversight have allowed too many safety hazards to fester. A typical day in the rail industry features chronically fatigued employees, chaotic and unpredictable work schedules and a slow-walk on the installation of life-saving technology like positive train control (PTC).
With this backdrop, some in the industry would like us to believe that it is safe, as new technology is implemented, to operate 15 – 20,000-ton freight trains filled with hazardous materials using only a one-person crew. The overwhelming majority of Americans – including 9 out of 10 in Wisconsin – believe one-person train crews are unsafe. We agree. The reality is that technology, in all its glory, is merely a supplement to and cannot replace the training and dedication of highly-skilled and well-rested rail operating employees.
Sadly, as of today, the only proposals that seem to have legs on Capitol Hill are those that delay implementation of PTC for years beyond the current 2015 mandate, and beef up federal requirements for video surveillance of workers in locomotives.
The American public shouldn’t be fooled by the idea that inward-facing cameras are the end-all, be-all solution to safer rail transportation. Cameras offer little more than additional information after an accident has occurred. They will do nothing to change the safety culture of this industry that tolerates tired workers and uses its political muscle to block legislative reforms that would make train travel safer.
My advice to lawmakers is to advance serious safety reforms that can save lives, rather than focus on investigative tools for the next accident.