Will camera spending really improve safety?

The North American railway journalist Fred Frailey has been a vociferous critic of moves to install video cameras in locomotive cabs to monitor drivers’ activities, arguing that all they will achieve is to help identify what went wrong in an accident rather than prevent them from happening. However, he published a response on his blog from Chicago, South Shore & South Bend Railroad president Andrew Fox, who makes a cogent argument for the technology.

Can inward facing video cameras really improve rail safety? Some railroads in North America believe so. Credit: Union Pacific.

Can inward facing video cameras really improve rail safety? Some railroads in North America believe so. Credit: Union Pacific.

Fox makes some good points about being able to monitor and enforce regulations such as not using mobile telephones in the cab, but is Frailey right? Most modern locomotives and multiple units already have extensive monitoring and recording facilities to assess operations, and real-time monitoring from onboard systems already allows railways to evaluate any number of activities – from throttle and brake settings to fuel consumption, component status and more. With the likes of driver vigilance devices already ensuring that crews remain focused, it is difficult to see how monitoring video feeds from all cabs in real time would highlight any improper practices, except by chance or in the event of an accident. Other than the thought in the back of a driver’s mind that he or she could be being monitored at any given moment, what safety gains are there really?

There is a strong argument that suggests that better signalling systems and safety devices will do more to improve rail safety than an in-cab video feed and the costs of setting it up and employing people to monitor them. The rollout of Positive Train Control and onboard systems monitoring is surely a better investment in terms of safety and performance evaluation than a video camera, however cogently North American railroads may argue the case. That is certainly the view of the majority of railways elsewhere in the world.

This is becoming a controversial issue in North America, but fundamentally the question has to be asked: is it better to invest in safety systems to prevent accidents, or in those which merely help explain what went wrong?

Big problems for PTC rollout

US railroads will not be able to meet the government imposed deadline for installation of Positive Train Control of 2015, according to representatives of a number of Class 1s – and there is no clear indication of when the rollout will be completed.

The scale of the challenge is vast, and with 96,500km of track and more than 18,000 locomotives to be equipped, it lends credence to the long held view of many railroaders that the 2015 deadline was always likely to be unrealistic.

But is the investment justified by a rational cost:benefit analysis? Although the safety benefits are significant, could the money being spent on PTC be used to save lives in other fields such as roads safety to name just one example? Intelligentsignalling.com will be interested to hear your views…

Either way, PTC implementation is going to be an even hotter topic over the coming months.

Cost and value

Nick Kingsley of Railway Gazette International’s analysis of US high-speed rail makes interesting reading. While attention has been focussed on the glitz and glamour of California, Nick rightly looks to the North East Corridor as the area with the greatest potential for high-speed rail to make a difference to travel patterns.

At USD 150 billion, Amtrak’s plans do look expensive, but as Kingsley points out, compared with the cost of upgrading roads or airports in the region – or worse still, doing nothing – high-speed rail on the North East Corridor looks a bargain.