PSR: A Bit More Scrutiny

Written by David Schanoes, Contributing Editor
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Regarding the “point-counterpoint“ debate originally published in Fortune about Precision Scheduled Railroading and reproduced in Railway Age, with Brannon and Gorman on the “for” PSR side, and Rep. DeFazio (D-Ore.) not exactly on the “against” side, but on the “questions need to be answered” side. I read the invitation to submit a reasonable, fact-based, non-political response to encourage discussion. Thank you. I’ll do my best, and I promise: no profanity.

I’ve written about PSR before on neither side, but rather, on the singularly unimpressed side. I’ve said that PSR is nothing new. Its value is supposed to reside in that holy grail of all transportation enterprises, optimum asset utilization. Maybe it does, but if it does, it’s nothing new. It’s what every railroad tries to do, has to do, to stay in business. Big deal, or rather, “what’s the big deal?” 

Hunter Harrison’s compensation from CSX, now that was a big deal, I understand, but that certainly can’t be the motivating force behind the executive enthusiasm for PSR. Can’t be. Sure, this is the land of opportunity, but let’s get a grip. 

I was told when I was a young and a bit wild trainmaster (“headcase” they called me) by higher ranking officers both sympathetic and non-sympathetic to my unique way of doing things, “Nobody is irreplaceable.” That applies today, from bottom to top. 

A railroad paying $151 million* to anyone has some determining interest other than providing the safest, most efficient service it can. But that’s not the subject of debate. 

Our learned senior fellow and chair in operations and analytics claim that railroads better start guarding their wallets, because DeFazio is coming for them. Well, actually he’s not. He’s asking questions. He wants to study the impacts, the effects that PSR has on the operating environment. Now that’s not a threat. That’s … business. You can’t manage what you can’t measure, and so far, nobody has produced the metrics that can measure the changes to operating efficiency and train safety precipitated by the adoption and adaptation of PSR.

Now, that might be because few really know what PSR is. Put another way, PSR is anything the executives at a particular railroad say it is. “Scheduled service”? Sure thing, PSR. How does this differ from what railroads have long established in passenger service, and have attempted to establish in freight? Beats me. 

“Longer trains”? Well, here’s the thing: Longer trains are harder to operate to a schedule. It’s a fact. Remember “BT-FT-OT”? “Big trains, fewer trains on time.”

“Shorter trains”? That’s PSR, too. The schedule says the train leaves at 7 PM, not 7 + X hours PM. 

Increased train length and weight is not dependent upon PSR. Trains were getting longer and heavier for years before PSR, and if that length and weight have increased dramatically in the past decade, it’s due to technology, such as radio controlled distributed power, which has taken advantage of improvements in the design of freight cars to carry heavier weights in longer trains. 

Messrs. Brannon and Gorman doubt the validity of concerns that PSR will lead “to more train accidents as well as unhappy customers and overworked employees, potentially jeopardizing the long-run health of the railroad industry,” as DeFazio said. They tell us, “None of the objections stand up to the least bit of scrutiny,” without providing, on their part, the least bit of scrutiny. That’s a swell way to prove a point: Claim any dissenting view can’t stand up to scrutiny, and then move on.  

Those of us who have been doing this for a while, evaluating operating programs for safety and efficiency, are kind of partial to scrutiny. We call it data-driven, or “objective analysis,” or the aggregate product of years of experience, but whatever you call it, scrutiny is the foundation of making an informed operating, rather than ideological, decision. 

So, let’s apply a little scrutiny to some of these concerns. We all know about the customer complaints that have been triggered by the roll-out of so-called “PSR,” so we can take debate points away from Messrs. Brannon and Gorman for that. 

But let’s look at train accidents. Now, full disclosure: I have no idea if any single one of the train accidents I’ve reviewed was caused by so-called PSR, but I’m not interested in any single accident. I just want to know if anything has changed pre- and post-adoption of PSR, in the frequency of train accidents that might cause concern in an operating officer, and push her or him to look at more cases with a bit more scrutiny.  

So just for fun, let’s say we take the 8 years 2013 to 2020, inclusive. For more fun, we will divide them into a pre-PSR 2013-2016 period and a post-PSR 2017-2020 periodf. And for more fun, we’ll compare them for the frequency of train accidents, not including grade crossing accidents

For fun, we’ll find the frequencies, the rates of:

• Train accidents per total train-miles.
• Train accidents per employee-hour.
• On-duty injuries per employee-hour. 
• Employee fatalities per total train-miles.
• Employee fatalities per employee-hour. 

(Note: The raw data is taken from FRA safety data tables; the calculations are mine. As much as I might like to hold FRA responsible for any errors, I can’t. They’re mine.)

Frequency of train accidents:
• 2013-2016: 1 (one) every 398,192 train-miles; 2017-2020: 1 (one) every 364,107 train-miles.
• 2013-2016: 1 (one) every 251,815 employee-hours; 2017-2020: 1 (one) every 226,682 employee employee-hours. 
In both cases, train accidents occurred with greater frequency in the 2017-2020 period. 

On-duty injuries per employee-hours:
 2013-2016: 1 (one) every 112,814 hours; 2017-2020: 1 (one) every 116,388 hours. 
An improvement of approximately 3%. 

On-duty employee fatalities:
• 2013-2016: 1 (one) per 61.6 million train-miles; 2017-2020: 1 (one) per 58.1 million train-miles. 
• 2013-2016: 1 (one) per 39 million hours; 2017-2020: 1 (one) per 36.1 million hours. 
In both cases, the frequency of fatalities has increased.  

Again, I have no idea if PSR played in any part in these accidents, but I think these matters warrant scrutiny. Even if PSR is shown to have no part in these changes, the numbers represent changes that put our industry on the wrong side of a trend.

Other statements need a bit of scrutiny, or at least qualification. For example, Messrs. Brannon and Gorman claim PSR increases operating capacity by “running longer trains … Two 100-car trains need less spacing than four 50-car trains, so more cars can be accommodated.” Those of us with some operating experience will scrutinize this and say several things, like “not always,” “that depends,” and maybe, “we’re not talking about going from 50 cars to 100, but from 100 to 200 or 250; from 7,000 feet to 12,000 feet.”

Determining operating capacity requires a complex calculation that depends on track geometry, type of control system, maximum authorized speed, bi-directional or uni-directional movement, number of sidings, length of sidings, ruling grade, and traffic mix.

So, and again just for fun, let’s put a 12,000-foot train out there on 150 miles of single track, CTC territory, with eight passing sidings, only one of which can accommodate 12,000 feet of train, with a MAS for freight operations 40 mph. Then we’ll start the train’s opposite number, also 12,000 feet in length, from the opposite end. And for even more fun, we’ll have an Amtrak train with an MAS of 79 mph scheduled to follow each of these trains three hours later. 

Under these circumstances, the longer trains have devoured and destroyed the operating capacity of the line. 

The editorial by Messrs. Brannon and Gorman is solely political. Their real target is “unions,” which they claim stand opposed to increased productivity. This charge is, in a word, nonsense. The number of train and engine crew workers employed by the Class I railroads has declined 25% since the pre-recession 2007 number. At the same time, revenue per ton-mile has improved. 

Unions have an obligation to protect the welfare of their members. That is a legitimate concern. As railroad operating officers, we too have obligations. Among the most important is to scrutinize supposed solutions to operating problems that actually represent a short-term financial interest.

David Schanoes is Principal of Ten90 Solutions LLC, a consulting firm he established upon retiring from MTA Metro-North Railroad in 2008. David began his railroad career in 1972 with the Chicago & North Western, as a brakeman in Chicago. He came to New York in 1977, working for Conrail’s New Jersey Division. David joined Metro-North in 1985. He has spent his entire career in operations, working his way up from brakeman to conductor, block operator, dispatcher, supervisor of train operations, trainmaster, superintendent, and deputy chief of field operations. “Better railroading is 10% planning plus 90% execution,” he says. “It’s simple math. Yet, we also know, or should know, that technology is no substitute for supervision, and supervision that doesn’t utilize technology isn’t going to do the job. That’s not so simple.”

*CSX’s disclosed 2017 compensation to Hunter Harrison totaled $151 million, but about $116 million of his package, consisting of stock options that were to vest over four years, went away following his death on Dec. 16, 2017, the company said in its annual proxy statement filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

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