Railroaders, public speak out against automated trains

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A Rio Tinto train completes an automated trip in October 2017.
Rio Tinto
WASHINGTON — The Federal Railroad Administration is seeking public input on the operation of driverless trains and, so far, it appears railroaders and the public are overwhelmingly against the idea.

In March, the FRA announced it wanted public input about automated train technology.

“FRA is interested in hearing from industry stakeholders, the public, local and State governments, and any other interested parties on the extent to which they believe railroad operations can (and should) be automated, and the potential benefits, costs, risks, and challenges to achieving such automation,” the agency announced on March 22.

As of the week of April 23, the regulator has received more than 600 comments. The public has until May 6 to share their thoughts on the matter via regulations.gov or by mail.

A review of the comments submitted so far show that railroaders are against having any fewer than a two-person crew aboard every train. One BNSF Railway conductor wrote that it is critical to have a crew member on site in emergency situations, such as a derailment or hazardous materials spill. The man also raised concerns about an autonomous system getting hacked.

“Our electrical grids, elections, local governments have all been compromised by hackers,” the man wrote. “It is not unreasonable to believe that they would try to take control of a train.”

Another commenter accused the railroad industry of being more interested in profits than safety.

“Autonomous trains are a huge threat to public safety and will have catastrophic results. The only reason for this technology is to result in even larger profits for the railroad companies and stakeholders,” the person wrote.

A Joseph City, Ariz., resident also raised concerns about the loss of jobs due to automated trains.

“Autonomous trains would be devastating to our region where so much of our economy is dependent upon railroad jobs. The region of northeastern Arizona is already struggling economically and such action would likely force many, many families from their homes to find work elsewhere,” the commenter wrote.

Once considered the stuff of science fantasy, autonomous freight trains have become a reality. In 2017, mining company Rio Tinto operated a driverless train on a 60-mile stretch of tracks in western Australia. The company hopes to expand its driverless operations this year.

The address to mail comments regarding railroading automation is: U.S. Department of Transportation, Docket Operations, M-30, West Building Ground Floor, Room W12-140, 1200 New Jersey Avenue SE, Washington, DC 20590. Docket No. FRA-2018-0027.
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