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Fifteen months of investigations and hearings have lead the National Transportation Safety Board to conclude that the chief engineer of a Los Angeles-area Metrolink commuter train was texting when he ignored a red light and collided with a Union Pacific freight train. The Sept. 12, 2008, accident killed 25 people and injured more than 100 others.

In light of these findings, the agency is asking rail operators to speed up their adoption of required positive train controls that will permit the automatic and remote slowing and stopping of trains at risk for crashing. The NTSB is also recommending the installation of cameras and voice recorders in all locomotive cabs.

Many rail operators, including Norfolk Southern, already use video cameras to show and record conditions in front of moving locomotives but not within the interior, and management has agreed not to use the video for general random discipline The NTSB is now advising companies and regulators to point cameras inward. The agency has specifically requested that

  • The Federal Railroad Administration "require the installation, in all controlling locomotive cabs and cab car operating compartments, of crash- and fire-protected inward- and outward-facing audio and image recorders capable of providing recordings to verify that train crew actions are in accordance with rules and procedures that are essential to safety as well as train operating conditions."
  • Rail operators "regularly review and use in-cab audio and image recordings …, in conjunction with other performance data, to verify that train crew actions are in accordance with rules and procedures that are essential to safety."

Each camera and voice recorder should have 12 hours of recording capacity, according to the NTSB. Companies would not have to release full tapes to the public in most circumstances.

Currently CSX and NS, for example, do not have cameras directed towards the crew, although audio and train performance data such as speed and horn use are detected. The NTSB recommendation is likely to set off a firestorm of controversy, as railroads would apparently have the right of general disciplinary use of the video and audio even when there is no collision or even a "near miss." Railroaders will worry about unfair "big brother" harassment use of such video.

My colleagues and I have argued for the necessity of positive train controls to reduce the risks for rail collisions. The value of external cameras to record the circumnstances of a crash and possibly to prevent accidents at railroads has been evident for some time, but the use of such devices is not mandatory.

Placing cameras and voice recorders inside locomotive cabs, however, will definitely allow operators to identify crewmembers who are doing unsafe things such as texting while trains are in motion. The presence of the cameras could certainly discourage unsafe activities, but where does safety begin and "big brother" use of surveillance end?

The NTSB often makes positive safety recommendations, but only the FRA and the U.S. Department of Transportation can implement regulations that become mandatory. If interior recordings of crew are implemented, the rules must bar any harassment or retaliatory use of the films and provide other protections of crews against arbitrary use of the films. In other words, labor and management will need to agree on clear rules if this recommendation is to become law.



  1. Gravatar for Steve Lombardi
    Steve Lombardi

    Rick: This is an interesting subject. The Wall Street Journal has a story titled Union Pacific Net Falls, but Growth Stirs, where the costs or these safety measures are discussed in a tangential way. If the link doesn’t work they can copy and paste this one.

    I thought your readers might find this video enlightening about why spending the money is so important. If we can’t rely on people acting responsibly the general public has but one choice.

  2. Gravatar for Facebook User
    Facebook User

    I have friends and family in the RR industry and think that these ideas, while well intentioned, are absolutely one step away from having Big Brother on the job. Safety is of the utmost importance. That being said, how would anyone else like to have a camera and voice recorder on the job? Should we start requiring lawyers have camera and voice recorders in their offices while discussing case strategy for defending people accused of criminal activities? That would help ensure the safety of the general public because those who admit to their lawyers that they are guilty could be caught and kept out of society. Loss of life is always tragic. There's no doubt that some people are not doing their job properly. But to require cameras and voice recorders in the cabs of locomotives is simply an invasion of privacy more than measure of safety. Every man and woman who works in the RR transportation field wants to go home at the end of the day. Every one of them is also told to go to work tired on many occassions. That sounds like a safety issue to me. Sending a tired man to do anything is risking that something not so good will be the outcome. We have become a greedy and nosy society that thinks suing people and sticking our nose in their lives is the answer to so many things. Yet, how many of us despise the idea of forfeiting our privacy to proposed invasive airport scans, all in the name of preserving our safety. Let me tell you something that seems strange in today's world. There really is such a thing as an accident, an incident that happens because it could not be forseen or prevented. How many of us broke a dish or knocked over a lamp when we were kids? I'd bet it's just about 100%. What if we punished our children the way we punish adults for accidents? Now, I'm not saying that texting while operating a vehicle of any kind is an accident. I AM saying that taking away privacy will not prevent them. Those who make the proposals to place camera, etc in trains probably have no real idea what is entailed in operating a locomotive. Having your every action and word recorded is a distraction in itself. Distractions can lead to accidents. Train operators deal with issues daily that many of us cannot fathom. They don't need another distraction. And, as for the companies saying they will not use the footage for random disciplinary action...well, I just can't believe it. I'm sure many working in the industry don't either. Even if they don't use it, which I do sincerely hope they mean it, stuff is hacked and put out all the time. I think treating employees like they are valued would go farther than spying on them. An employee who feels valued does a better job than the employee who feels like he can't do anything right because the boss is always looking over his shoulder. That is true for any business. Maybe the men who are doing their job properly shouldn't be treated like criminals just because someone else did something wrong.

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