Archive for the ‘Positive Train Control’ Tag

Thom Stark on Private Enterprise   5 comments

Thom Stark

Thom is back from his adventure, responding to my post from last week.


I think we’ve pretty well beaten the subject of who’s responsible for the American Civil War to a bloody, unrecognizable pulp. It seems clear that we fundamentally disagree on the issue: you see it as a product of Lincoln’s intransigence on secession, while I see it as the result of Southern bellicosity and the irrevocability of membership in the Union.

So be it. Let us agree that we will disagree, and move on.

The example you give of Federal heavy-handedness is an interesting one. I can’t and won’t defend the NTSB’s refusal to grant a waiver from its PTC requirement for the Fairbanks-Seward line, but I will note two things: first, that your complaint is really about bureaucratic inflexibility, rather than Federal power, and secondly, why aren’t your Senators and Representative using their influence to force the NTSB to be reasonable? That’s part of their job – and an important part, at that.

The thing that most struck me about your essay, however, was the way you dismissed the battle between Chattanooga and Comcast over gigabit Internet access. I think you have completely mischaracterized the conflict as Chattanooga “interfering” in Comcast and AT&T’s market. The fact is that neither Comcast nor AT&T had ANY plans to build out a fiber-based physical plant in the greater Chattanooga metropolitan area at the time when the city decided to build its own. Chattanooga practically begged both companies to build it for them, but they refused, citing high costs and lack of market demand (the same excuses cable companies and local incumbents have repeatedly used to justify not investing in local fiber networks across the country). The city fathers saw ubiquitous gigabit access to the Internet as a keystone in their effort to make Chattanooga a tech hub – and they were entirely correct about that – so they used Federal grant money to help them fund construction of a fiber-to-premises network of their own.

Now the network is in place, and (because the city has no obligation to funnel money into the pockets of shareholders) Chattanoogans have signed up for truly high-speed Internet access in throngs. As a result, Comcast is now fighting to keep from having to build out their own fiber network in the suburbs by getting the Tennessee legislature to forbid Chattanooga to offer to connect its MAN (Metropolitan Area Network) to fiber networks its suburbs want to build. It’s a case where private enterprise is purposefully ignoring market demand in order to avoid investing in fiber to the home, because short-term profits are, somehow, an Unquestioned Good, while supplying the market with the services its demanding is an Unnecessary Expense. And that’s ALL because of state-level protectionism and cronyism which have combined to prevent the entry of non-profit players into the broadband market.

And there, I think, is one major bone of contention between us on which, like the root cause of the American Civil War, we are unlikely ever to agree: you see private enterprise as automatically preferable to government-provided services, whereas I have no such philosophical romance with the ideal of free market capitalism. To me, capitalism is a tool that’s a lot like fire, in that it makes a useful and capable servant, but a poor and loathesome master. In this country, ever since the advent of Saint Reagan, deregulation of capitalism has acquired a talismanic status as an object of worship on the right. The problem I see is that the history of deregulation provides an uninterrupted series of examples of why it’s a Very Bad Idea. Inevitably, government deregulation has led not to a self-regulating marketplace, but to irresponsible gaming of the system for short-term profit, leading inevitably to market bubbles and general economic distress.

Lela Markham Davidson Ditch CorrectedNo less a deregulation cheerleader than Hank Greenspan has admitted that the Federal Reserve, in abdicating its responsibility for fiscal oversight, was ultimately responsible for the crash of 2008 – and that deregulated marketplaces do not, in fact, automagically self-regulate. Instead, they turn into a free-for-all environment where taking advantage of deregulation to generate short-term profits at the expense of individual corporate and marketplace stability is the rule, rather than the exception. Disaster, predictably, follows.

Lela on Sovereignty   1 comment

Lela Markham Davidson Ditch CorrectedThis is what Thom had to say last week on states rights.

We definitely see the Civil War from different perspectives. The United States of American (formed under the Articles of Confederation) came into being when the Americans decided that they would no longer tolerate the caprice of George the III and elitism of Parliament. The American colonies seceded from Great Britain. They tried to do it peacefully, but England chose to prosecute a war against them by moving on strategic locations like Boston, New York and Charleston. The colonists had no choice but to fight back or be subjugated. Consider Ft. Ticonderoga to be the 18th century equivalent of Ft. Sumter. And just as the Revolution might have been averted by George and Parliament recognizing the rights of the colonists, the Civil War was an unnecessary event caused by the political cowardice of Congress and the hubris of President Lincoln. Had the South won the war instead of the North, we might view all this differently.

A primary element that has separated the United States of America from virtually every other nation in history is the concept of it being “a nation of laws, not a nation of men.” For a country to be considered a nation of laws requires that nation adhere to its foundational laws — which here in the US is the Constitution. Subsequent statutory law is meant to be subordinate to Constitutional law, not subject to the political whims of a president, Congress or even the Supreme Court. The 9th and 10th amendments make it clear that the states did not think they were ceding their sovereignty when they ratified the Constitution. Several states required the Bill of Rights in exchange for their ratification of the Constitution. Those amendments could be set aside, of course, by the procedure established for modifying the Constitution, but they haven’t been. They’ve just been ignored. The very fact that state legislatures must ratify amendments to the Constitution speaks to an understanding of states rights that no longer exists in this country.

When laws are too numerous, abusive, designed to help or penalize one group at the expense of others, are formulated by unelected bureaucrats, or are subject to the caprice of the monarch in the White House, then the law is no longer based on the Constitution and we are no longer a nation of laws, but of men.  Goodbye liberty, hello tyranny.

I’m not sure liberty is such an old-fashioned idea. It appears people still have a longing for it. And states are much more able to protect liberty for their small citizenship than is a huge federal government.

You’re mixing apples and oranges with your examples, by the way. Neither are really states rights issues. Tesla is suffering from government-corporation cronyism while Comcast and AT&T in Chattanooga are suffering from government competing against them in the marketplace. Michigan gets revenue from the car manufacturers while Tesla is an outside company that provides little or no revenue to Michigan while competing with their bread-and-butter industry. I’m not saying its right. I’m just explaining it.

If government were small and permitted only to do a very few things, this would not be an issue because it would not need as much revenue. Neither example has to do with states rights because the federal government does the same thing. The federal government’s record on both is not substantially better than those of states. Google Goodyear, Dole Fruit, and Solyndra for examples. Both issues could be solved satisfactorily by the government getting out of business. Here in the Alaska, the cab drivers of Anchorage are seeking to keep Uber out and the City of Anchorage must decide whether to stay cozy with their revenue providers or do what the people want? Hmm … We’ll see how that works out.

Meanwhile, a private company called Quintillion is bringing fiber optic to parts of the state by laying the cable from England down the Dalton Highway Corridor. They’re being helped by favorable State permitting and Department of Transportation allowing them to use some remote facilities, but government is by and large not paying for it. The attached article does a good job of explaining the project and future plans.

The State of Alaska was offered this opportunity with the same stimulus funds Chattanooga is using to fund EPB, but Sarah Palin declined, so the Native corporations listed in the article (private companies) stepped up to provide fiber optic to several villages using private funding. I suspect that within five years, a high-speed fiber network will be available throughout the Railbelt region — still privately funded. GCI and AT&T are already investigating doing it in Fairbanks. That’s progress without government intervention.

But these are not states rights issues. These are examples of the government’s unhealthy interference in the private marketplace — either by favoring some companies or setting itself up as a competitor against others. States rights has to do with federal overreach into areas where state governments can and should be in control.

Have you ever heard of Positive Train Control? The train received GPS information about its location and where it is allowed to safely travel. Equipment on board enforces this information and prevents unsafe movement. It’s a good technical innovation that could save lives in the dense Northeast rail corridors. And since those rail routes cross state lines, you can make an argument for interstate (federal) control.

Applied to Alaska, however, it’s stupid.

First, not surprisingly, the Alaska Railroad goes nowhere near a state line, so there’s no interstate argument here. Driven by the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Railroad Administration has demanded that the Alaska Railroad develop a PTC system for collision-avoidance, speed control and a centralized control station. The system has a price tag of around $160 million, which is more that the ARR’s annual operating budget. If the equipment is not in place by the end of 2015, the ARR will no longer be able to provide passenger service, which will devastate our tourism industry.

The reason for this is that Alaska only has one rail line between Seward and Fairbanks, 500 miles apart. But here’s where it gets silly. Only four trains run on that track every day. While there are sidings about every five miles, the north-bound and south-bound trains meet twice daily in Denali Park. Since they exchange passengers at that point, they wait for one another. While operating, they keep in touch with the dispatch center and each other through radios and sat phones. Top speed is also only 50 mph and with a transit time of 12 hours (the federally mandated limit for train operators), there is always a second pilot and fireman on board, so falling asleep or dying at the controls is not a problem. We also use Automatic Train Control which is similar to PTC  without the hefty price tag. Bottom line is, we’ve never even had a close call on the ARR and the odds of such an event are extremely low. Our waiver application was denied and we’re now working on a deferment until 2018 so we can get the financing together (oil prices being what they are, you know?)

Thom StarkPTC is simply a one-size-fits-all federal law that says single track is a head-on collision in the making and therefore you must install this expensive system regardless of whether it is needed. THIS is a states rights issue. When federal bureaucrats who are not familiar with a situation try to make regulatory law from a distance without regard to what makes sense in a state — then the federal government is out of hand and needs to be set back.  And it’s not an interstate transportation issue because the Alaska Railroad goes nowhere near another state.

That’s just one example. I could give you at least a dozen more examples of where the federal government imposes edicts from on high, often through regulatory law, that place unfunded mandates on states that do not make sense for those states.

I’m waiting for the day the federal government mandates we all drive electric cars, turning the highway commute time from Fairbanks to Anchorage from seven hours to three days due to recharges. Now that would be idiocy! But can we deny that it’s coming?

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