The thought of a 10,000-ton train going through northern Arizona with no conductor aboard has some railroad workers worried about what autonomous trains might mean for safety of pedestrians and those who live in areas with railroads.
Last month, the Federal Railroad Administration issued a request for information about automated railroad operations and integrating automation more fully into railroads.
“FRA seeks to understand the rail industry’s plans for future development and implementation of automated train systems and technologies and the industry’s plans and expectations related to potential fully-automated rail operations,” the administration wrote in the request.
Some in northern Arizona say the idea is a recipe for disaster.
“It’s a horrible idea for a lot of different reasons,” said Ellis Laird, the Winslow legislative representative for the SMART (Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation) union. “Right now, we have two sets of eyes on each train. Humans can react to different situations, I don’t think they will ever be able to program a computer for every different situation.”
The Arizona Corporation Commission requires a two-person crew in the control compartment of the lead locomotive unit of a train, ACC spokesman Nick Debus said in an email. However, Liard said if autonomous trains start being tested, the commission could vote to change the rule and allow fully autonomous trains.
“Anyone who’s worked with computers knows there are glitches,” Laird said.
Wade Carlisle, a locomotive engineer and a candidate for the Arizona Senate in Legislative District 6, said fully autonomous trains could be vulnerable to hacking, which could create a dangerous situation for those in cities that contain railroads.
The entire city of Holbrook, for example, only has a 5-minute evacuation window if there were to be a hazardous materials car rupture on the railroad, he said. The danger zone for a hazardous materials spill on the railroad can be tween half a mile to one mile, meaning people could be exposed to very dangerous chemicals if there were a spill. An autonomous train that could be hacked could therefore be used as a weapon, he said.
“They haul every chemical known to man in bulk,” he said.
Last month’s crash in Tempe when an Uber car was in autonomous mode and struck and killed a pedestrian is more proof that autonomous vehicles are too dangerous, Laird said.
“We all know people who have hit people,” Carlisle said of train conductors and engineers, adding that often collisions happen with cars that are not the first car in the train, and said a person can see the collision in the mirrors, but the cameras on an autonomous train might not. “They (conductors) stop the train and then call, an autonomous train I’d guess is just going to keep going.”
Laird agreed, and said even though trains with crews hit pedestrians from time to time, autonomous trains could pose a bigger danger.
Aside from the public safety concerns, removing crews from trains could have a devastating effect to the economy of the region, the two said.
There are more than 500 trainmen based out of Winslow, Laird said, and about 800 SMART union members in Arizona.
On average, the workers are making about $100,000 per year, for a payroll related to railroads of about $50 million annually, Laird said.
If trains were to be fully automated, the two estimate between 90 and 95 percent of those jobs could be eliminated.
With other major shifts in the transportation paradigm throughout history, like going from horse and buggy to cars, there has been a creation of new jobs, Carlisle said. However, now many jobs for machinery operators and other positions that were created by new technology have also been automated, leaving little room for new job creation with automation trends.
“With artificial intelligence and autonomous trains, you are not providing any new jobs for the thousands of people who will be left without one,” Carlisle said. “As SMART union members, we are asking, ’What are you going to do with us?’”
Carlisle said keeping crews on trains is for the best interest of all parties
“There is always pushback between industry that wants to cut corners and maximize profit, that’s why we have regulatory agencies,” he said. “The reality is, when you’re dealing with corporations, they’re almost never altruistic.”
The public comment period for the request for information will be open until May 7 for those who wish to submit comments. Those wishing to submit comments on can do so through www.regulations.gov using the docket number FRA-2018-0027.