Ground TransportationU.S. railroads a political football

In Amtrak crash, critics cite lack of safety tech

National Transportation Safety Board officials survey the damage at the scene of the Amtrak train crash in Philadelphia.
National Transportation Safety Board officials survey the damage at the scene of the Amtrak train crash in Philadelphia. Photo Credit: NTSB

Last week’s deadly Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia once again thrust the country’s rail safety and infrastructure issues back into the national spotlight, reigniting questions of whether the U.S. is doing enough to update its rail network to modern standards.

“The largest challenge by far facing the United States passenger rail network today is lack of political support,” said James Zumwalt, resource development coordinator for the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP).

Indeed, last week, just one day after the derailment in Philadelphia killed eight people and injured more than 200, the House Appropriations Committee signed off on a bill that would reduce funding for the Federal Railroad Administration, which includes Amtrak operations, by $262 million for 2016. The bill does request that rail safety and research programs continue to receive funds of $226 million, which is equal to the 2015 level.

On May 12, Amtrak train 188, a Northeast regional train bound for New York’s Penn Station, derailed on a curved section of track while traveling 106 miles per hour, more than double the 50-miles-per-hour speed limit for that section of the tracks, according to a media briefing led by National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) member Robert Sumwalt.

The derailment not only resulted in the loss of life and injuries but in major Amtrak service disruptions, including reduced ervice last week between Washington and Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Philadelphia and New York and Boston; and a temporary halting of Amtrak service between New York and Philadelphia.

Barbara Spero, a travel consultant with Tzell Travel, said she was scrambling last week to re-accommodate passengers who were stuck in New York due to the canceled trains. She said trying to get updates from Amtrak about the resumption of service was “chaotic.”

Exacerbating the situation in New York was the fact that, for whatever reason, the city’s hotel rates were unusually high on the day of the derailment.

For a stranded client in Manhattan, Spero said, she could not find a room for less than $800, no matter the category. The client had asked for a midrange hotel, but she advised him that for the same money, she could put him up at the Peninsula.

Rates appeared to have normalized by late Thursday afternoon.

Jennifer Wilson Buttigieg, co-president of Valerie Wilson Travel in New York, said the agency has many clients who travel on Amtrak, most of whom have switched to flights for the time being. In a few instances, clients traveling between Baltimore and Philadelphia are using a car and driver, she said.

Future improvements

As the attention of investigators last week turned to the engineer who was driving the train and the reasons for the high speed at which he took the curve, advocates for and against additional funding to improve the U.S. rail network and safety technology used the incident to reignite the debate over the status of U.S. rail travel in 2015.

“Public policy has favored highways over rail since the 1950s, and that continues today,” said Ed Ellis, president of Iowa Pacific/Premier Rail Collection, which owns and operates the rail-tour operation Pullman Rail Journeys.

When it comes to passenger trains and high-speed rail, former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood told CNBC last week that Europe, not the U.S., is the “gold standard.”

“If we are going to have safe transportation systems in America, you have to invest in them,” LaHood said.

The NTSB has been advocating for a system known as positive train control (PTC), a way to monitor and control train movements that provides increased safety and reduces the risk of human error.

According to the NTSB, when Congress enacted the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, it required each provider of regularly scheduled intercity or commuter rail services to implement a PTC system by the end of this year. But it still has not been fully implemented for all the country’s commuter, intercity and freight trains.

An Amtrak report released in January stated that PTC is operational on 400 track-miles of the Northeast Corridor. The system was not in use at the site of the crash, however.

According to NARP President Jim Mathews, transportation providers across the U.S. are struggling to find enough funds to implement PTC and to sufficiently protect rail crossings.

“These are two safety investments that could have prevented two deadly train accidents in the Northeast within the past 12 months,” Mathews said in a statement.

Last week’s derailment came just three months after six people were killed and 12 injured when a Metro-North commuter train crashed into an SUV that was stopped on the tracks in New York’s Westchester County.

Linda Darr, president of the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association, said,“We are having a bad few months, but the overall safety picture is very good relative to the past decade or so of data. We are carrying more, and the output is high, and generally service has improved.”

According to the Federal Rail Administration, the rate of train accidents per 1 million train miles has been, for the most part, steadily declining over the past decade. There were 3.68 train accidents per million train miles in 2006, a number that dropped to 2.292 in 2014 but has crept up to 2.654 this year.

Nevertheless, Ellis said this latest accident has not dented his confidence in the safety and allure of rail travel in the U.S.

“Rail travel is safer than it has ever been in spite of this isolated incident, and it will get safer over the next five years,” he said. “I ride the train to work every day and have no qualms about stepping onto any train in America.”

NARP’s Zumwalt added: “I feel safer on board a train than crossing the street to get to the train station.”

Kate Rice contributed to this report.

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