Risk and Innovation

Picture this:  following the accidents that took place last year on short lines, people start calling for the end of the short line industry because it just simply isn’t working.  The industry just can’t do the job, and no one can tolerate the damage and deaths.  Crazy you say?  Maybe for our industry, but it did take place a couple of weeks ago in another industry that has small companies starting to forge new paths for transportation.  What industry am I talking about?  Private space transportation.You might have seen the first accident that took place on live television.  Orbital Sciences Corporation, which is one of two companies that have won contracts with NASA to transport cargo to the international space station, was launching their Antares launch vehicle for the fourth time from Wallops Island, VA.  Liftoff was scheduled for a little after 6pm Eastern time, and what happened was something straight out of the old films of rocket launches from the 50’s and 60’s:  the rocket lifted off, had a problem about 15 seconds into flight, crashed back down to the ground, and blew up.  Big time blew up.  Fortunately, damage was minimal to the launch site, and no one was injured.  Very quickly the focus was on the engines in the launcher’s first stage, which were reconditioned and modernized engines that were built over forty years ago for the Soviet N-1 moon rocket, which itself had a habit of doing the same thing the Antares did.  So what did Orbital do once the accident happened?  It has picked itself up, brushed itself off, and has come up with plans to resume its contracted business as soon as possible.  Initially, it will use other companies to haul their spaceship to orbit while they work on a re-engined version of the Antares.The other accident that happened was almost as violent, and did result in a loss of life.  Spaceship Two, which is designed to haul tourists (who have paid $250,000 a ticket) on sub-orbital flights, was undergoing a flight test over the Mojave Desert in California.  Shortly after the vehicle ignited its rocket motor a violent breakup took place, which killed one pilot, and injured the other, who parachuted back to the ground.  Initially people speculated that the motor was the cause of the breakup, but as investigators started to look at the wreckage and evidence, a different story emerged:  one of the pilots (unfortunately the one that was killed) unlocked a braking system earlier than he should have, and it activated at the wrong time, which caused the breakup of the vehicle.  While there might have been a flaw in the braking system, it is starting to look like the early unlocking of the system may have led to the start of the accident.  While the investigations in an accident that had a loss of life take much longer than ones that don’t, Spaceship Two’s builders are pressing on with the construction of a new vehicle and say they will carry passengers when the vehicle is done, and the testing says it is ready to go.Following both of these accidents, which took place within a couple of days of each other, there were those who started to publicly question whether it is appropriate and safe for private companies to be developing and operating space vehicles.  What makes these companies any different than a short line?  Other than the fact that they are financially much bigger than most of us and are operating in a high tech industry, not very much.  They have the vision to make transportation better, less expensive (a relative term), and more accessible, which is not unlike a short line railroad.  Both of these companies will bounce back from these unfortunate accidents, and pave a similar road to space that the short lines did less than a hundred years ago.Anyone want to lend me $250k? ---By Steve Friedland
steven-fb.jpgSteve Friedland is a child of the railroad industry. Following summers and vacations working on the track gang for the family-owned Morristown & Erie Railway, a 42-mile New Jersey short line, he started full-time in 1994. He has worked in all areas of the railroad, including track, mechanical, signals, and operations, and currently is a member of the management team for the company as director of operations in Morristown, N.J. In 1999, he founded Short Line Data Systems, a provider of railroad EDI and dispatching software, AEI hardware, and management consulting to the short line industry. He currently serves as the ASLRRA representative to the AAR's Wireless Communications Committee and is chairman of the joint AAR-ASLRRA Short Line Information Improvement Committee. He also is a member of the ASLRRA's board of directors.