27.6.06

COST-BENEFIT ANALYSES. The editorial board at the Los Angeles Times is skeptical about a California bill that would ban push-pull commuter trains.
The bill would force rail lines to close off the first 10 rows of the lead cars in so-called push trains, in which the train is pushed from behind by a locomotive rather than pulled, and end push-mode perations entirely in 2010.
The bill would be the end of easy railfanning on trains in push-mode. More to the point, the editors assert it would not be cost-effective.
The bill might soothe the grieving with a feeling that all those deaths had at least resulted in a law that would save lives in the future. More likely, however, is that the measure would be costly and result in reductions in rail service without necessarily improving safety.
The alternatives are not cheap.
Rail operators estimate that it would cost more than $200 million to buy enough locomotives to put them at both ends of California's commuter trains, which could be necessary if push mode were banned. Other options could cost even more. For example, railroads could build "wye" tracks, which are configured like the letter Y and allow trains to reverse direction by performing something like a three-point turn.
One option that might have occurred to my overseas readers is a diesel with cabs on both ends. Such power is rare in North America, and the old practice of setting up a road-switcher locomotive for dual control operation raises questions about obstructed view. The cost of the double-ender option well might be as high as the cost of additional locomotives (or converting hulks to use as cabbage cars) in order to amortize the tooling cost of a one-off design with a limited production run that is being sold to a state agency.
If the bill would produce measurable improvements in safety, it would be worth the price. There is no evidence that it would. To head off future crashes, the Legislature should focus on things that could actually make a difference, such as more barriers to keep cars off the tracks and more grade separations where roads and tracks meet. But the state's transportation system should not be hobbled because of one man's apparent attempt to commit suicide.
As North American train frequencies and train speeds increase, the risks of level crossings, whether abused by suicidal individuals or misused by drivers in a hurry will also increase.

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