BLE issues in-depth report on positive train control

With an eye toward the future, and in a continued effort to protect the safety of all operating employees, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers co-authored an in-depth report submitted to the FRA's Rail Safety Advisory Committee regarding the benefits and potential dangers of Positive Train Control (PTC).

The principal author was Dr. Tom B. Sheridan, professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Sheridan is a well-respected authority in the field of human factors and automation. BLE Members Dr. Frederick C. Gamst (BLE Div. 660), a University of Massachusetts professor and world renown expert on railroad operations, and Bob Harvey (BLE Regulatory Research Coordinator, D.C. Office) worked assiduously on the final draft to make sure the paper addressed safety concerns and to ensure PTC systems will be the safest possible.

The paper was written to address the concerns raised by all of labor regarding the potential for too much reliance on technology, which could result in a loss of situation awareness and a degrading of skills by train crew members.

The authors' view emphasized a human-centered design philosophy, in which PTC would serve as a "guardian angel" to train crew members, only coming into play during emergency situations.

In its 23-page report, BLE took the position that locomotive engineers and conductors should continue to operate all trains throughout North America. BLE also argued that too much reliance on technology could create safety concerns and, even though PTC can save lives, it should not be relied on exclusively or employ automation that can cause the loss of skills required to operate trains safely. For example, if locomotive engineers and conductors were to rely too heavily on PTC, then their operating skills would diminish. If PTC were to fail, then engineers could be "out of practice" with their train handling skills, resulting in a dangerous situation.

In addition, BLE took the position that the PTC technology should not be a diversion. It should not require so much attention that it distracts train crew members from the performance of their other duties.

There were five main conclusions drawn from the report:

(1) Over-reliance on (or not knowing how much to rely on) automation, and the added distraction of or unfamiliarity with monitoring automation, are well-known problems in the human factors literature, but there are few easy remedies.

(2) Maintenance of the locomotive engineer's perceptual, decision-making and control skills must be considered mandatory.

(3) A PTC system should provide an auditory warning of appropriate hazards and graphical information about stopping profiles from the given speed. Otherwise, it should allow for manual operation, unless certain limits are exceeded, at which point automatic braking enforcement would go into effect.

(4) Failures of a PTC system should be announced by a clearly discernible auditory alarm, and the type and time of failure recorded on the locomotive event recorder.

(5) Special classroom and simulator training for PTC operation, including failure scenarios, should be given to train crews.

The main goals of PTC are: to prevent train-to-train collisions (positive train separation); to enforce speed restrictions, including civil engineering restrictions (curves, bridges, etc.) and temporary slow orders; and to provide protection for roadway workers and their equipment operating under specific authorities.

(The BLE's paper on PTC will be published over a series of Newsletters. Part 1 is on the next page.)

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2000 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers