When PTC is fully operational by the end of 2020, CSX will have invested $2.4 billion in the federally mandated safety system.
“It’s clearly important that we leverage that investment,” Lonegro says. “One of the clear ways to do that is through one-person crews and ultimately, way down the road, perhaps autonomous trains.”
Railroads are expected to face increased competition from the trucking industry, which is rapidly advancing technology that will permit platooning and driverless operation. That will significantly cut the cost of trucking and enable truckers to further siphon traffic from railroads.
From a technology perspective, it will be safer and easier for railroads to deploy autonomous operations because they operate a closed network where they control all of the traffic, Lonegro says.
The highway environment is vastly different, with multiple users and the lack of a fixed guideway like railroads enjoy.
The U.S. Department of Transportation under the Trump administration is taking a more balanced approach to technology and automation issues between modes, Lonegro says.
The Obama administration, by contrast, sought to advance technology in trucking while favoring regulations that would mandate two-person crews.
“I don’t think technology is ultimately going to be the holdup,” Lonegro says, pointing to fully autonomous railroad operations that have begun in Australia.
Rather, a host of labor, regulatory, and public policy issues will have to be addressed first. The full rollout of PTC by the end of 2020 likely will bring those issues to the forefront, Lonegro says.
The CFO says that he’s about to turn 50 and expects to see single-person crews by the end of his career.
Lonegro’s comments, which came in response to a question at the Cowen & Co. Global Transportation Conference on Sept. 5, are a reversal for CSX.
Last year, then-CEO E. Hunter Harrison said he didn’t understand the industry’s desire to move toward one-person crews.
“I’m not a one-man crew advocate,” Harrison said on CSX’s earnings call in April 2017, although he noted that there are situations where they might make sense, such as switching at mines.
“But today to take a 20,000-ton train on line of road, with one person, I don’t think it’s good business,” Harrison said, citing safety concerns and the value of an extra set of eyes and ears in the cab.
Plus, he said, it would pose unacceptable delays when a lone crew member has to contend with a broken air hose or a knuckle failure.
Harrison’s predecessor, Michael Ward, said that one-person crews were inevitable.
“There’s going to be autonomous vehicles out there. There’s no question. The only question is when and how much they will be deployed,” Ward said during the railroad’s earnings call in January 2017. With main lines under the protection of PTC, “one does have to question why there has to be two people in the crew,” Ward said.
“Longer term, that’s something we’re going to have to address,” Ward added, saying that he expected the industry to face challenging negotiations with labor unions.
But he said one-person crews are “inevitable. It’s just a question of when.”