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Transportation Engineering in the 21st Century

Posted on January 21, 2014 at 10:25 PM

Transportation Engineering in the 21st Century

Welcome to my new web site! This is my first Blog and I agree, the title is rather trite! But, I am new at this game of blogging and hope that you will bear with me while I get better at this and come up with catchier titles.


But what about transportation engineering in the 21st Century? What makes it different from the Transportation Engineering in the 20th Century? Or, as a matter of fact, in any preceding century?


The fact of the matter is that we have gotten smarter about all types of engineering-mostly! This smartness has a price of course and we need to keep this price in mind-always. Basically, we have reached the point where any advances in the field have ever greater costs and ever diminishing benefits. Mathematically, we are at the asymptote of the curve. Consider the percentage of improvement to be the Y-axis of the curve and the cost of implementation to be the X-axis of the curve. In an asymptotic relationship, the cost of a 1% improvement may be as high as 50% or a 100% or even higher. The curve has flattened out.


Lets look at an example. Much has been written about Positive Train Control(PTC), especially after the recent Metro-North tragedy. Having been with Metro-North for 27+ years, the tragedy struck close to home. Would PTC have prevented the tragedy? Of course. But there are many technical, political, and financial issues to be resolved before PTC can be fully implemented. Most of the remaining technical issues can be and will be resolved. Hopefully the issues involving the assignment of and the issuance of the necessary radio frequencies will become non issues if the FCC can get its act together. The political issues are harder to define and solve. Congress was quick to pass legislation to require the implementation of PTC. It has yet to pass legislation that would assist in the funding for the implementation of PTC. The result is that other, equally pressing projects have been deferred or cancelled in order to free up funding. Further, no one seems to be ensuring that other federal agencies involved with the PTC projects, as an example the FCC, have bought into the necessity of acting quickly to allow the deadline for installation to be met. Unfortunately, before the Metro-North derailment, our political leaders seemed to steer clear of the PTC issue and did little to encourage its funding or implementation. Now, at almost the eleventh hour, they have become advocates for rapid implementation, but without providing the necessary capital funding or the political pressure on the various branches of government to assure that everyone works as a team.


The financial issues are clear. Money, and lots of it will be required. Not only to build and install the apparatus, but to test and de bug the systems. It is one thing to announce that a system has been developed and installed, it is yet another to declare that the system has been fully tested, de-bugged and is safe for operation. My fear is that this most important step may be circumscribed in order to meet the deadline.


But wait you say! What about the asymptote? Ah-yes. The cost of PTC is great, but the benefits as compared to what we have? Lets go back to the Metro-North derailment. Could a cab alerter in the cab car have prevented the derailment? Very possibly, if it was installed in the cab cars and not just the locomotives. Could the existing cab signal system have prevented the derailment? Very possibly, if it was designed to take into account significant civil speed restrictions. Could better awareness of sleep disorders have prevented the derailment? Very possibly if greater awareness of sleep disorders and impacts of shift changes was researched and the results of the research were made available to and implemented by the railroads and the their staffs. Could better staff discipline and better supervision have prevented the derailment? Very possibly yes, in that better supervision has a way of improving train crew performance. So, yes, PTC could have prevented the derailment, but so too could have several existing systems and measures that already are in place.


Now all of the items that I mentioned could have been implemented prior to the derailment at a significantly lower cost than that associated with PTC and and in a significantly shorter time period. OK, you say-what about the asymptote? Well, the answer is that in today's 21st Century environment, we have to be smarter about spending money. Using only new technology to solve human performance issues is tremendously expensive and gives only a limited improvement. But using our existing resources in a smarter way gives us almost similar results at a lower cost.


That is the real lesson for 21st Century Transportation Engineering. We have to learn how to use what we have in a better manner before we start to expend more money on better technical solutions. True, some solutions such as PTC are inevitable, but there is no reason why we cannot get closer to the end result of PTC by better using our existing resources and having a back up during the inevitable testing and debugging process.


So, let us start to think about ways we can do what we do in a smarter manner. Lets drop the old "We have always done this this way and that is it" attitude and let us start to examine if the old way was the best way. Not to say that the old way was wrong-many old ways are indeed tested and proven and have little need to change. But maybe they can be improved or be better adapted to the new environment of limited funding. Let us start to better use the resources we have and to adapt them in new and innovative ways. Let us also back away from a desire to solely use technology to solve human behavior issues. Sometimes human behavior issues need to be resolved using human behavior! Better supervision, adherence to safety protocols and continued training and follow up have yet to be bettered as a means of improving performance.


Let me give an example. Back in the late 1930's, the New York Central Railroad had a series of rear end collisions on its lines that were equipped with automatic train stop apparatus. Investigation revealed that the accidents resulted from a practice known as "Running the yellow", where an engineer coming upon a yellow, or caution signal, would assume that it was due to a train ahead of him that was moving at the same speed. The engineer would come to the next signal and it too would be a yellow, thus reinforcing the assumption that the train ahead was moving at the same speed and that the next signal would also be yellow. Now the automatic train stop system gave a warning each time a yellow signal was passed and this warning had to be acknowledged. The engineers had come to develop a pattern of behavior where they would acknowledge the signal, and then proceed without decreasing speed. Of course, the inevitable occurred. Sometimes the next signal would be red, and the preceding train would be located such that the following train would not have sufficient space in which to stop. The New York Central was informed by the safety agency investigating the accidents that unless it began to better enforce the operating rules, the existing automatic train stop installation would have to be changed and a much stricter means of signal acknowledgement would have to be implemented. So the New York Central then devised a simple method whereby the speed recorder tape in the locomotive cab would have a mark made every time the engineer acknowledged a restrictive signal. It also commenced a program by which the speed recorder tapes were reviewed by supervisors on a regular basis. Once this program was implemented, the number of accidents involving "running the yellow" dropped to zero. No exotic technology was used, just a simple system modification and most importantly, proper supervision and follow up.


So let us beat the asymptote! Let us be smarter and better use what resources we already have. Let us not rely solely upon technology to solve our issues. A friend of mine, Dave Schanoes, who has a much better sense of railroad operations that I ever will, has said good railroading is 90% maintenance, 90% supervision and 10% good management. I like that math!


Have a good night!


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