NOV. 3, 2015
Rail Industry Had Safety Technology Decades Ago
By RON NIXON
WASHINGTON -- In 1981, while traveling on a corporate jet, Richard M. Bressler, the chairman of the Burlington Northern Railroad, hit on an idea: What if the technology used by airlines to track the location of planes and help prevent accidents was applied to the rail industry?
Mr. Bressler, an engineer by training and a former airline executive, directed a small group of his employees to come up with a similar system for the railroads. The result was a safety system called the Advanced Railroad Electronics System, or ARES, which was soon placed on several trains on a section of track in Minnesota. The system, among other safety features, allowed dispatchers to stop trains automatically if the engineer exceeded speed limits.
But after five years in operation, the project was abruptly shut down in 1993. The company cited the system's expense and resistance from many managers who did not see how the benefits outweighed the cost of the technology. It calculated that it would have cost about $350 million to install the monitoring hardware and software on the railroad's entire system, equal to about $580 million today.
On Thursday, President Obama signed a bill giving railroads an additional three years to install a more automated safety technology called positive train control on 60,000 miles of track. Congress passed the measure, which extended a Dec. 31 deadline, after industry executives and some lawmakers said the delays were the result, in part, of an "unproven and untested" safety system.
But internal corporate documents, independent studies and interviews with former Burlington Northern officials show that nearly 30 years ago, the industry had developed a technology that accomplished many of the functions of the modern train safety system.
Since 2004, about 77 deaths and more than 1,400 injuries could have been prevented if railroads had installed a system like positive train control, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. That includes an Amtrak train derailment  that killed eight people and injured hundreds more in Philadelphia in May.
"No one is talking about putting a man on the moon or on Mars," Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, said in an interview. "We're talking about a technology that was in place in the 1980s, and the failure to implement it is costing lives."
The ARES system was rudimentary compared with the system the railroad industry is trying to install today, federal regulators say. Also, the older system was tested on only a few hundred miles of track with just a few trains, the regulators said, so it is not known how it would have worked in high-traffic areas like Chicago. Nevertheless, safety experts say the system proved that a technology to stop trains from colliding was feasible.
"We would have a much safer railroad system today" if the railroad companies had agreed to develop the system, said James T. Hall, who was chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board from 1994 to 2001.
According to the Association of American Railroads, a trade group, the industry has spent nearly $6 billion to install positive train control and will spend $4 billion more. The association said that after years of pushing for a delay -- spending millions on lobbying and campaign contributions -- all of its members were committed to installing the technology on their rail systems.
The association declined to comment on the ARES system, referring questions to the company, now called Burlington Northern Santa Fe. The railroad declined to comment.
ARES was modeled after an air traffic control system then newly developed by Rockwell International for Boeing 757 and 767 jets.
In an interview, Mr. Bressler, 72, now retired and living in the Seattle area, said he had read about the system in a magazine. After finishing the article, he sent a note to senior managers asking, "Any application to locomotives?"
To oversee the project, the company hired Steve Ditmeyer, a former Federal Railroad Administration official.
"I was just there a few weeks, and the note from Mr. Bressler landed on my desk," Mr. Ditmeyer recalled in an interview. Some months later, after seeing a Jan. 22, 1982, advertisement in The Wall Street Journal promoting Rockwell's "21st-century avionics for the new generation of jetliners," he contacted the company.
"I just wrote to them out of the blue," said Mr. Ditmeyer, who is now a transportation consultant in Virginia and an adjunct professor in the Railway Management Certificate Program at Michigan State University. The company agreed to give it a try.
The resulting system was installed over a 250-mile stretch of track in northern Minnesota's Iron Range in 1987 and ran as a demonstration project from 1988 to 1992. Seventeen trains hauling coal, grain and taconite ore were fitted with the technology.
Initially, engineers were skeptical, Mr. Ditmeyer said. "We told the engineers not to stop at a signal, don't touch the breaks or the throttle," he said. "It worked as advertised. The train would come to a halt. We did that in numerous locations on the track, and the result was always the same."
After testing the system for several years, Burlington Northern sent a locomotive fitted with the technology to Washington, D.C., to show federal regulators and lawmakers. Federal transportation agencies liked the technology and urged railroads to adopt it. But, with the exception of Amtrak, few supported it.
After Mr. Bressler left Burlington Northern to run a spinoff, interest in the project waned. Other managers at the railroad did not share his enthusiasm for the project.
A 1990 Harvard Business School study of the ARES program showed that managers were sharply divided over its merits. "ARES seems to be technology in search of a problem," one senior manager told the Harvard researchers.
The system suffered a deathblow when other railroads failed to buy in. Ultimately, managers at Burlington Northern decided that they did not want to go it alone -- would it give the company a competitive advantage or disadvantage? -- and killed the project in 1993, after spending more than $15 million on it.
Fifteen years later, in 2008, after a commuter train crashed in California,  killing 25 and injuring 135, Congress mandated the use of train safety technology to prevent further accidents.
A new report by the Government Accountability Office,  the investigative arm of Congress, found that the vast majority of railroads would not meet the Dec. 31 deadline.
Mr. Bressler said he believed industry opposition in the past had been a factor.
"It's appalling that things are still done so haphazardly. I think it's borderline criminal," he said. "If a system like the one we developed had been used on the Amtrak train in the May accident, it would have shut down the engine and saved lives."