Rail Strike and Automation

On December 1st, Congress passed legislations compelling rail workers to accept an agreement with the railways. This action ended the prospect of a rail strike which was brewing over a lack of sick leave and questions over attendance policies.

American Trucking Associations president Chris Spear spoke up on the subject, saying, “Hospitals, businesses and ordinary Americans depend on freight rail and trucking for daily necessities, and the trucking industry has neither the equipment nor the manpower to replace a single day of lost freight rail service.”

There is agreement among observers, however, that averting a holiday rail strike is not a permanent solution to the problem. The prospect of a rail strike was caused by years of austerity in the system. One paid day of sick leave per year is obviously not enough, and Congress did not step up to provide the seven days the House proposed.

Whole other issues — including whether railways can insist that only their own rolling stock can use their lines — are involved, the focus on attendance shows that the central problem is human.

Automation as a solution

One possible solution is the driverless train. Railways can now function without human drivers. Doing so would allow more frequent trains and save up to 70% in labor costs.

The city of Hamburg has a fully automated train system which runs alongside human-driven trains. Paris has automated several Metro lines and plans to continue the process. Trains in the UK now run without drivers and without guards.

Things are more complex in the U.S., however. Automated train safety checking systems are currently limited by regulations. The number of human workers on a train crew depends on union negotiations. The technology is ready, but the regulations limit its use.

On the other hand, the up-front cost of shifting to automated trains will be significant. While it should pay off in the long run, the immediate cost may be beyond the means of the railways.

Averting the rail strike may be just the first step.

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