America’s “high-speed” rail lines are slow compared with those of the countries with which the United States chooses to compare itself. The schedules are unsteady. And, as the horrific crash of an Amtrak train in Philadelphia Tuesday night illustrated, safety concerns are on the rise.
The Federal Railroad Administration’s Office of Safety Analysis has seen a steady rise in Amtrak derailments in recent years. According to a Washington Post review of the data, “there were two in 2012, three in 2013, six in 2014…”
In the first two months of 2015, however, there were at least nine derailments. But it is the latest Amtrak Northeast Corridor derailment, with at least seven dead and roughly 200 hurt, that is renewing talk about how this country’s rail system is in serious need of repair.
The first priority is to mourn for the dead and to care for the injured in a regional tragedy that has national implications. But even amid the initial news reports, there was constant referencing of what Donald Trump was quick to decry as America’s “horrible infrastructure problems.” The Obama White House agreed, with spokesman Josh Earnest saying Wednesday morning, “There is clearly more that can be done when we’re talking about a railway infrastructure that is decades-old.”
The cause of the crash is still being investigated. There are reports that the train was traveling too fast for a turn it had to make—raising issues of human error, safety protocols, unaddressed dangers, and the role that smart infrastructure investment might have played in making the route smoother and safer. The most telling headline in this regard appeared in Friday morning’s New York Times: “Technology That Could Have Prevented Amtrak Derailment Was Absent.” The fact is that train crashes happen for a lot of reasons, some of which are difficult to control against. But there is no question that the role played by outdated and decaying infrastructure can be addressed by the federal government. Nor is there much question that one of the best ways to assure that human errors do not lead to disasters is by keeping equipment, track and systems up to date. Unfortunately, as a Bloomberg Business report explained Wednesday morning, “There’s a lack of political will.”