Friday, May 15, 2015

The Amtrak Derailment: Inaction Has Consequences

This week's Amtrak derailment killed at least eight people, with several more still in critical condition. And while we do not yet have all of the facts, it is nonetheless important to start trying to figure out what went wrong and, more importantly, what needs to change to prevent these tragedies in the future. Failure to take action will only compound our problems and put more lives at risk.

What we do know: the train was going way too fast into the curve. Evidently the train was going at 106 mph, more than double the 50-mph speed limit in the curve and also much higher than the 80-mph speed limit shortly before the curve. What isn't known is how the train got to that speed - whether the engineer accelerated the train, or there was a mechanical failure. The engineer is currently saying he can't remember anything just before the crash, so it may be a while before we know what exactly happened, and what needs to change for the future.

Still, there's no shortage of suggestions. At the center of attention is Positive Train Control (PTC), the absence of which may have allowed this week's derailment and Metro North's in December 2013. PTC is a wireless communication system connecting with trains and their engineers that can slow down or stop a speeding train if the engineer is ignoring warning signals. In other words, had the stretches of track on which these derailments occurred had PTC up and running, it may have prevented the derailments.

Amtrak actually is rolling out PTC on the Northeast Corridor, but this is far more easily - and cheaply - said than done. Because Congress ordered railroads to install PTC in 2008 but didn't actually give the railroads the wireless frequencies they need to do so, Amtrak and others have had to negotiate with the private companies that own this spectrum. In a display of cruel irony, Amtrak was just months away from having PTC in the Philadelphia area where this derailment occurred, having been approved by the FCC to purchase the spectrum it needed. Amtrak says PTC will be up and running throughout the Northeast Corridor by the end of this year and is credited for installing the system faster than most other railways that have yet to do so.

Other safety systems could be at fault, as well. The train was equipped with "alerters," a safety system that sounds an alarm when an engineer remains idle while the train is in motion. The National Transportation Safety Board's review of the train's black box doesn't mention any alerting sounds, meaning either the system wasn't working, or the engineer wasn't idle long enough to trigger it. What we do know is that the engineer applied the emergency brakes seconds before the derailment. (Side note: Metro-North is grandfathered out of the alerters requirement, though there is legislation to change that.)

Some have started floating the idea of seatbelts on trains, but this is probably DOA: many experts say it would be nearly impossible to force travelers to wear seatbelts at all times, significantly reducing their efficacy, and that at high speeds seatbelts may actually exacerbate injuries when a train comes off the tracks.

Then there are those who point to Amtrak's general state of disrepair. Apparently the stretch of track where the derailment occurred was laid during the Civil War, when trains were slower and lighter than today's (interesting fact: apparently passenger trains are now required to be heavy enough to withstand a collision with a freight train, which is part of the reason our trains are much slower and more expensive than other countries'). One could imagine 150-year-old infrastructure might not be up to the task of shouldering the burden of modern-day rail travel. As it is, countries whose tracks are relatively new - such as in Japan or European countries with high-speed rail - have far fewer derailments than we do. That would certainly make the case against putting high-speed trains on existing rail lines. But again, we don't know the tracks caused the problem here.

Regardless, when faced with a $21 billion state-of-good-repair backlog, it's hard not to think that shoddy infrastructure may play a role in these kinds of disasters. On the other hand, many Republicans think Amtrak has enough money but isn't spending it properly; their prescription would be for more accountability and transparency, not more funding.

Ultimately, it may be a while before we know exactly what went wrong on Train 188, thus any discussion about needed improvements are for now speculative. Still, it is crystal clear that a lot needs to happen to bring rail infrastructure up-to-speed with today's heavy demand and heavier trains. Positive Train Control, or something like it, should be fully funded and speedily implemented to help avoid derailments caused by excessive speeding. Amtrak's backlog of much-needed repairs needs to be dealt with, and old and outdated regulations requiring excessive weightiness should be reexamined. We can't afford not to address these issues: even as we wait for the rest of the facts, we already know we have a lot of work to do.

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