How do you make Amtrak safer?

trainTomorrow (actually, already today) marks the first class of this Spring semester BUS 351 at Emory Goizueta Business School. But before we take off for a new exciting semester, I would like to comment on some great work done by students in the last year’s cohort. The accolade goes to GBS students Gobie Kumarasmy, Jamie Landman, Shannon Lin, Jeff Meng, and Aaron Weiner for their project on the safety of Amtrak. Basically, they asked the question which is in the title – how would you make Amtrak safer?

Amtrak is the largest publicly funded US passenger rail operator, so the debate about spending there is rather intense. First, let us understand how many accidents happened with Amtrak trains over almost 40 years, from 1973 to 2012. Accidents can be of two types: those involving rail equipment (for example, locomotive breakdowns), and those involving crossings with highways (for example, car crashes into a train). Results are reproduced with the authors’ permission.

geographyYou can see that highway accidents are mainly confined to the coastal areas, as expected. Somewhat surprisingly, southwestern states have a lot of equipment accidents. So what drives the accident rate?

For the highway-rail accidents the key drivers are weather and the presence of lights at the crossing, whereas visibility and presence of the warning signs are not. We cannot do much about weather, but it seems that lighting more of rail-highway crossings can help.

The situation gets more interesting if you look at the rail accidents. First of all, one might think that the age of rolling stock is a significant predictor of the accidents. Somewhat surprisingly, it is not. Neither is the train speed. Extreme temperature, it turns out, is associated with a higher rate of rail accidents, but it is not the only one. Amtrak, it turns out, has a history of drug-related problems. Look at this data:


Accident rate seems to decrease when more drug testing is done, but what is really interesting that simply bringing attention to this problem (2012 inspector’s report) has roughly equivalent effect.

All this data gives food for thought about importance of work culture for successful operations. Sometimes one needs to look beyond obvious solutions (such as invest in new locomotives), to improve the situation. This can be cheaper and more effective.

How to profit from no-show train passengers?

According to this NYT article, Amtrak is rolling out the system where conductors will be scanning passengers’ tickets with iPhones.

By late summer, 1,700 conductors will be using the devices on Amtrak trains across the country, the company said.

With the new system, passengers will be able to print tickets or load a special bar code on their smartphone screens for conductors to scan, and conductors will be able to keep track of passengers on board, Amtrak said.

A digitized check-in process for trains seems long overdue in a world of online concert tickets and flight reservations. But the industry faces a particular challenge in that passengers hop on and off at different platforms at different times, unlike at an airport, where people check in at one gateway to board a flight, and then stay there until the flight arrives.

Both airlines and railways profit from no-shows if they overbook. However, for a railway the above mentioned challenge of people hopping on and off at different stations might actually be a blessing in disguise, especially if one can track no shows in real time. That’s exactly what this new technology is doing.

Imagine a train departing from Boston to DC. Continue reading