What would the change accomplish, if it worked as intended? The Congressional Research Service noted that it "is expected to prevent less than 2 percent of the approximately 2,000 railroad collisions and derailments that occur annually." The FRA says that between 1987 and 1997, it would have saved about seven lives a year. For comparison's sake, more than 33,000 people die every year in U.S. auto accidents.
Even when it comes to saving lives, some investments have too low a payoff to justify the money they require, and this is one of those. The FRA estimated that the costs of imposing it would exceed the benefits by 20-fold.
Cass Sunstein, who was in charge of assessing regulations for President Barack Obama, was asked during a 2011 House hearing whether he knew of any federal rules that clearly failed the cost-benefit test. "There is only one big one that comes to mind," he replied. "It is called Positive Train Control."
No one doubts the system would prevent injuries and fatalities. But if that were the sole consideration, we'd all be driving armored vehicles to the grocery and wearing bulletproof vests to walk the dog.
Money spent on this remedy is also money that can't be spent on others that may be more critical. Earlier this year an executive of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority told The Wall Street Journal the federal rule would consume funds needed to repair a major bridge, forcing its closure. "We could have great signals," he said. "But we might not have safe bridges to run those trains over."
Or, come to think of it, safe crossings. Most rail accidents involve cars that roll onto the tracks in front of speeding trains. But efforts to prevent these collisions may go begging for money because Washington has a different priority. The end result may be more lives lost than saved.
At work here is the familiar government impulse to come up with a solution for every problem. In this case, it has run dangerously out of control, and there is no device to stop it.