January 8, 2016 Return to overview

The Internet of Things – Is Saving Lives A Feature Or A Benefit?


On a trip to New York before Christmas, I encountered wall to wall TV coverage of the horrific train crash that killed 4 people in the Bronx on December 1st.  Given that I was in Barcelona a month previously, not long after that city had a train event of its own it got me thinking about the causes of these crashes and where technology could be used to prevent them.

The human costs of these accidents to the passengers, drivers and their respective families are immeasurable but as is so often the case in our modern age it’s a figure that will very soon be given a very real, dollar value once the lawyers start to circle. In fact, a simple Google search for ‘NY train crash’ gave me a page with links to 8 news stories and 3 advertisements for legal firms offering me no fee evaluations of my case if I was an injured party. Tellingly a similar search for Barcelona gave me the news stories but no lawyers, (please feel free to insert your own social commentary on the ‘US vs Europe’ debate here depending on your particular life view)

So although it seems insensitive to blithely ignore the human element of the situation the monetary cost of the event alone started me thinking about why from a pure technology perspective these crashes could have been allowed to happen at all.

Let’s take a very arbitrary review of the situation for a second.  Unlike other forms of transport, trains don’t typically move left and right, they certainly don’t move up and down and although they have the capacity to move backward its not something they tend to do very often and almost never with passengers onboard.  So technically we have a solid object that moves in one direction and the only variable that changes is just how fast it does this. So far, a fairly binary set of parameters.

Now speed on a straight stretch of rail isn’t an issue, it only becomes a problem when the train hits a bend.  We know where these bends are (obviously) and we can certainly track where the trains are,  I can track where my iPhone is so I can certainly find a 50 ton, multi-million dollar chunk of metal if I need to. So why can’t we track a train and slow it down when it hits a bend.

The simple answer is, we can. ‘Positive Train Control ‘to give it its full name is a very simple use of technology and one that is being actively delivered by many train companies in many countries.  Obviously given the scale of railroads across the globe (the US alone has 60,000 miles of track and 25,000 locomotives) it wouldn’t be an inexpensive thing to do but it can be done, relatively quickly and certainly in a timeline that would save lives.

So what’s holding it up?  Right now a mix of local bureaucracy & budget-restricted railroads are probably the biggest factors but government regulations and a perception that its better to do nothing than to initiate regulations that can’t do everything are certainly contributors in many regions.

So just like in so many areas of life, the technology is ahead of the governments that need to implement it and many smart ideas are being held back because of lack of vision in the powers that be.  This lack of vision may be accepted when it comes to other areas of legislation like digitizing driver licenses or monitoring livestock but surely when human lives are at stake the priorities should be a little higher.

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