The Wall Street Journal recently published a valuable update detailing the story behind how Australia’s first-ever fully autonomous freight trains have gotten rolling. While subways around the world have used forms of computerized control for many decades, freight rail’s milestone could mark a sea change for an industry with a far larger geographic scope. But the WSJ piece doesn’t sufficiently explore the implications of automated trains in America, or why railroad automation is considered “bleeding edge technology” by some.
Much of the story comes down to geography. The WSJ piece makes clear that staffing trains to serve remote desert mines can be extremely expensive. Normally, railroad towns would spring up at appropriate intervals to house workers and their families, but the vast, desolate landscape between the gigantic Pilbara iron ore fields and the coastal ports that serve them barely supports plant life, let alone towns. But the same desolate landscape that forces the railroad to fly in workers creates a low-risk testbed for railroad automation. The mines, the railroad, the port infrastructure and the cargo itself are all owned by the same company, Rio Tinto. This further internalizes the risk of automation, and is a reason why the Australian desert, of all places, is home to the first fully automated freight rail line in the world.
While there aren’t many places in America where a train can roll for days without passing close to civilization, there are plenty of rural areas where hazards are small enough that a single crew member would be sufficient. Automating tasks other than conducting, like track and rolling stock inspections, could yield efficiency gains and improve inspection quality. As better inspector management and audits are implemented, automation is the natural next step toward making already safe U.S. railroads even safer.
In rural areas, this cost difference matters. Margins on bulk materials hauled by trains can be small. A more competitive rail network would take road-destroying heavy trucks off rural highways and reduce road maintenance costs for small states that can’t afford to repave very often. Automating the transport of heavy loads like ore, grain, coal and gravel would mean big savings for taxpayers.
And holding back railroad automation is far from costless. Because freight railroads pay for almost all of their infrastructure, regulations that hold back rail transportation generate unfunded liabilities for places that send or receive lots of heavy goods. This liability will eventually catch up to small towns and states, to the detriment of the farmers, miners, loggers and others who rely on freight rail lines. If these lines could cut labor costs in half with one-person crews and automated track inspections, fears of ballooning infrastructure costs would be less of a public concern than they are today.
Allowing American railroad regulation to look more like Australia’s would mean more and better rail service for small town industry in the long run. Federal Railroad Administration regulators could learn from their peers abroad to give railroads the freedom to test automation technologies in corridors where few civilians would be at risk.