Why Didn’t a Planned Safety System Stop Sunday’s Amtrak Crash?

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In the wake of Sunday morning’s news about a fatal collision between Amtrak and CSX trains in South Carolina, you may have felt a sense of deja vu. That’s because the crash is the third Amtrak accident in as many months.

In late December, three people were killed when an Amtrak train derailed onto a highway in Seattle. Then in late January, a chartered Amtrak train carrying Republican lawmakers collided with a garbage truck and derailed, causing one fatality.

These recent accidents are part of a longer string of serious passenger train wrecks, the most dramatic of which was the 2015 derailment of a commuter train in Philadelphia, which killed eight. It’s important to point out that traveling by train is still far safer than driving in the U.S., but the rash of accidents demands the question — what’s going wrong?

There are at least two parts to that answer: human fallibility and systemic failures that reach all the way up to the federal government.

A common factor in many recent Amtrak accidents, including both the Seattle and Philadelphia derailments, has been trains exceeding posted speeds through curves or other low-speed areas, in some cases due to driver negligence. Way back in 2008, Congress mandated that passenger and freight railways reduce the risk of speeding by implementing a system called Positive Train Control, which would automatically intervene if trains were going too fast or at risk of collision.

The immediate cause of today’s accident, according to a National Transportation Safety Board press conference, was a switch that routed the Amtrak train onto a siding occupied by a CSX train, and an NTSB spokesperson made clear that a PTC system, if it were working as intended, should have prevented just this sort of crash. The status of PTC installation on the particular track in question isn’t yet clear, but according to the latest data CSX, which owns the track, has only installed PTC on 39% of its track.

Amtrak is actually doing a lot better than that, with PTC installed on 69% of its track. That’s despite the fact that the 2008 PTC mandate came with no funding for Amtrak, which relies on federal funds for system maintenance, to install the technology. Even highly profitable private freight lines argued that the original 2015 deadline was unrealistic, since the technology was still being developed when the original law passed. For its part, Amtrak has partly blamed the slowness of PTC implementation on difficulties obtaining wireless spectrum.

In 2015, Congress voted to extend the deadline for nationwide PTC implementation to the end of 2018, and some transit commentators are already blaming deadline waffling and failure to fund the system for the latest crash.

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The slow and inconsistent implementation of PTC is only one part of the infrastructure issues facing Amtrak, though. Its rails are also aging, and lack of maintenance has played a role in some recent derailments. Amtrak told the New York Times last December that it only realized the severity of track deterioration around New York’s Penn Station after a derailment in April of last year.

Amtrak’s infrastructure woes are part of a much broader decline in spending on airports, roads and rails across the U.S. since the early 1990s. President Donald Trump made major new infrastructure spending a plank of his 2016 campaign, but his newly unveiled plan has been criticized for being vague and underfunded.

Meanwhile, despite the administration’s rhetoric on infrastructure, Trump’s 2018 budget proposal cut federal Amtrak funding by 13%. And in December, the Trump administration pulled $13 billion in funding for Amtrak rail maintenance that had been earmarked by the Obama administration.

American investment in rail projects lags substantially compared to other developed nations. In recent years there has been hand-wringing that America is falling behind not only Japan and France, but even Turkey, China, and Russia in development of high-speed rail. Now, it seems we’re failing to even maintain our aging, inadequate rail systems to an acceptable level of safety.