Could Better Infrastructure Have Prevented the Amtrak Crash?

Aerial view of the Amtrak train derailment in Philadelphia on May 13, 2015. Photo: Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Within hours of Tuesday night’s deadly Amtrak derailment outside Philadelphia, an intense debate had already begun in Washington over whether the government could have done anything to prevent the crash. On the left, there has been a near-unanimous call for more infrastructure spending to improve Amtrak and the country’s passenger railways. On Wednesday morning, House Democrats demanded as much, with New York Democrat Steve Israel insisting that Tuesday’s tragedy represented a failure on the part of Congress to address the nation’s infrastructure woes, and that the government has been “divesting in America.” Republicans rejected the Democrats’ requests, however, with Utah representative Mike Simpson suggesting it was “beneath” Democrats to attempt to use Tuesday’s crash for political gain when investigators were still trying to determine what caused it in the first place. Republicans then voted to cut $260 million from Amtrak’s budget, though it’s unlikely that cut will survive a vote in the Senate.

Looking at the liberal rationale more closely, The New Yorker’s John Cassidy sums up how infrastructure improvements might have prevented this particular disaster:

[E]ven if human error was responsible for what happened, the crash also highlights the fact that some stretches of the track that Amtrak uses are unsuitable for high-speed travel, and they are also not equipped with the modern technology necessary to enable automatic override systems, which can slow down speeding trains.(According to Reuters and the Times, the train that derailed did have [the Positive Train Control] safety system installed, but it didn’t work on the track where the derailment took place.)

One thing we do know for sure is that, for decades now, the United States has been allowing its public infrastructure to decay. In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers issued a report saying that it would take roughly $3.6 trillion worth of repairs and retrofitting merely to return the nation’s roads, railways, and airports to a safe and durable state. For example, about one in nine bridges in the U.S. were structurally deficient, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Cassidy also zooms in on the politics of spending  or not spending enough, in his mind — on the government-funded Amtrak:

As one of the largest and costliest public-transportation systems in the country, [Amtrak] has long been a target of conservative, anti-government types. This despite the fact that is increasingly popular with riders. Since 2000, the number of passengers using Amtrak each year has risen by almost half, to more than thirty million, and new, faster services, such as the Acela, have proven to be big successes. Close to eleven million people travelled on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor routes alone last year. To be sure, the company still loses money, but that’s true of virtually all public-transportation systems the world over. As most countries recognize, accounting profits (or losses) don’t take account of the broader social and economic benefits that such systems provide.

If Amtrak had the resources to invest in new equipment—particularly newer, straighter tracks—it could be a lot more popular and successful, as well as safer.

How much investment? Slate’s Josh Voorhees runs the numbers:

That the nation’s transportation system is underfunded is no secret: The rail system earned a C-plus on the American Society of Civil Engineers’most recent infrastructure report card, which pegged the funding needs for the Northeast Corridor—for both Amtrak and the eight commuter railroads that use the passage—at about $10 billion over the next 15 or so years to achieve a state of good repair and boost capacity by 40 percent. According to officials who operate the Northeast Corridor, meanwhile, the route faces a $1 billion annual shortfall in capital needs—and has a “state-of-good-repair backlog” of 11,100 major projects and 4,800 basic infrastructure ones on its main Amtrak line. Implementing Positive Train Control and other safety measures up and down the corridor is near the top of the corridor’s to-do list. […]

Congress, however, has shown little interest in funneling more federal cash to the nation’s passenger rail system, either in the Northeast Corridor or elsewhere. The federal government provides Amtrak with about $1.4 billion a year—but conservatives have long hoped to trim that number significantly. On Wednesday a House committee began marking up a GOP spending bill that would cut Amtrak funding to $1.1 billion a year. Longer-term transportation planning, meanwhile, remains stuck in Washington’s current gridlock.

And as the Washington Post’s Philip Bump suggests, another reason Congress — specifically House Republicans — might not care very much about Amtrak is because very few of their constituents actually use it:

Of [the 184 congressional districts in which not one person got on or off a train in 2014,] 116 are currently represented by Republicans. On average, ridership in Republican districts was about 41,000 in 2014 — compared to 261,000 in Democratic districts.

Trains are more cost effective in more densely populated areas, and more densely populated areas in the United States tend to vote Democratic. There’s another level of politics at play, of course; many conservatives consider the idea of a federally funded transportation program to be anathema. And since so few of their constituents actually use the system, there’s little incentive to want to offer political support.

Back to the details of Tuesday’s crash, the NTSB’s lead investigator, Robert Sumwalt, believes that additional train safety technology could have prevented this particular disaster: “Based on what we know right now, we feel that had such a system been installed on this section of track, this accident would not have occurred.” Over at Vox, Matt Yglesias takes a look at that tech:

It’s called the Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System (ACSES) and it’s a species of what’s known as Positive Train Control (PTC) technology. ACSES uses wireless communications and transponders located in tracks to make sure that trains automatically abide by location-specific speed restrictions regardless of any possible human error.

By congressional mandate, PTC is supposed to be installed throughout the Northeast Corridor by the end of 2015, but it hasn’t yet been installed in the Philadelphia area. Many stretches of freight and commuter rail track, meanwhile, seem to have fallen far behind the 2015 deadline[.] […]

He adds that “this really is a case where state-of-the-art infrastructure would have avoided the problem, and where more money would have made state-of-the-art infrastructure possible.” To many conservatives, however, the flare-up of infrastructure rhetoric is simply knee-jerk politicking. Hot Air’s Noah Rothman is among those who are unimpressed:

I wonder how much we’d need to spend on infrastructure to keep Amtrak conductors from taking a curve at 100 miles per hour.

And the National Review’s Ian Tuttle sees the entire Amtrak project as a massive, overpriced failure:

Since it started operations in 1971, the company has been heavily dependent upon federal aid. Eggheads predicted that Amtrak would break even in three years. It has never broken even, let alone turned a profit, and it doesn’t expect to: “Amtrak will never be profitable,” Amtrak’s then-president David Gunn told a Senate committee in 2002. Amtrak’s history of fiscal chaos suggests that the service’s problems are not the product of congressional stinginess.

Some have objected that to suggest Amtrak should turn a profit is misguided. After all, haven’t airlines received subsidies? Yes, but the start-up subsidies that helped get domestic airlines off the ground have been paid back, and in 1978 the federal government effectively demanded domestic airlines fly or fail on their merits by deregulating the industry. The result was a wave of closures — and cheaper travel for passengers. Would Amtrak survive without the government’s largesse? Not a chance.

Regarding how America can solve its railway infrastructure problems, Tuttle points to comments from UCLA transportation scholar Eric Morris:

It isn’t hard to see what accounts for Amtrak’s failing to come anywhere close to covering its costs. Americans are not crying out in agony due to a lack of transportation options, and, simply put, passenger rail doesn’t have much to recommend it compared to the competition. On longer-distance trips, flight is vastly faster. The car isn’t much slower, is fairly inexpensive (particularly with multiple passengers, common on intercity trips), and provides far greater convenience, including door-to-door service and the use of a car when the traveler arrives at the destination. Intercity buses also aren’t much slower than Amtrak, are vastly cheaper, and aren’t that much less comfortable once they are on the highway. In terms of passenger transport, trains are a 19thcentury technology that we are attempting to apply to a 21stcentury problem.

Morris argues that deregulation and privatization may solve the rail passenger system’s problems as it did for the country’s freight railways:

Harsh as it sounds, my answer to the question of how to keep Amtrak from losing money is to eliminate subsidies and perhaps privatize the operation. Highly uneconomical service in most of the country will vanish, but frankly there are few riders who will notice and even these have plenty of other transportation choices.

But to railroad historian and author Tom Zoellner, the whole passenger train system is the problem, starting with how passenger train travel was supposedly reformed in the ’70s, and how it was intended to be profitable:

[D]on’t blame Amtrak for the mess. Blame history and the law. If Americans really want anything more from their passenger trains besides a future of lumbering banality — besmirched by a few dozen derailments and a handful of passengers killed each year — the 1970 law [founding Amtrak] must be amended to guarantee a healthy level of federal support, clearly prioritize passenger trains over freights, take posturing by Congress out of the equation, double-down on advertising and capturing new customers and lay down dedicated tracks outside the Northeast Corridor. The current Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act of 2015 doles out what amounts to more starvation rations: a paltry $7 billion over the next four years, which means nothing is going to change. Amtrak needs to stop becoming a symbol of American incompetence and start leading the way in an era of fuel shortages and highway congestion.