Happening Now

60 Minutes Loses Forest for Trees in PTC Story (Part 1)

March 5, 2019

Let’s put aside opinion and look at the facts -- presumably Job One for an investigative news organization

by Sean Jeans-Gail, Vice President of Government Affairs and Policy

In a report aired this past Sunday, 60 Minutes examined the United States’ implementation of Positive Train Control (PTC) across its rail system through the lens of a 2018 collision between a CSX freight train and an Amtrak train in Cayce, South Carolina.

60 Minutes’ Leslie Stahl bookends the story with an interview with Mark James, the engineer in the cab of the CSX locomotive involved in the Cayce collision. While the story hits on some important points about oversight failures in PTC implementation, it fails to present an accurate picture of the safety of the US transportation system:

Lesley Stahl: In your opinion, is train travel safe?

Mark James: No.

Lesley Stahl: Would you put your daughter on an Amtrak train?

Mark James: No. I wouldn't get on one myself.

Well, let’s put aside opinion and look at the facts -- presumably Job One for an investigative news organization:

  • There has been a 33% decline in derailments over the last 10 years, even as passenger ridership has increased and freight volumes have been steady, with a 23% increase in Intercity and Commuter Rail Services over the past 10 years, and a 5% increase in Freight Rail Service over the past 10 years.
  • Accidents with hazardous materials have declined by 72% in ten years.
  • The rail industry employee casualty rate has declined 17% since 2006.
  • Commuter rail is 18 times safer than travel by passenger car, measured by fatalities per billion passenger miles.
  • When measured by fatalities per billion passenger miles, riding intercity passenger rail (.87) or commuter rail (.373) is on average more than 10 times safer than riding in a passenger car (7.033).
  • On average 40,000 Americans die in automotive accidents each year, making motor vehicle crashes one of the leading causes of preventable death and the #1 cause of death for teenagers.
  • Looking at freight accidents per 10 billion ton-miles, fatal accidents are three times likelier for freight trucks as compared to freight rail (11 vs. 3.6).

The most dangerous part of any Amtrak trip is the drive to the station and it’s a shame that 60 Minutes failed to broadcast that simple fact to their audience. If we shift people and freight off rail and onto highways, more Americans will be killed and injured. While the deaths might not be sensational enough to make a good 60 Minutes piece, that won’t be any comfort to the bereaved families.