Amtrak: A Deadly Q & A

Amtrak. Again.

The crash of a Miami-bound Amtrak train that killed two people and injured 116 others came just a few days after an Amtrak train carrying Republican members of Congress collided with a truck and derailed, killing one person. A month before that, in late December, three people were killed when an Amtrak train making its debut run derailed onto a highway in Seattle.

Once again, the same tragic stories of innocent people, rail workers, passengers and others killed or injured; the bereavement, the physical pain, the psychological trauma, the scenes of screaming, terrified passengers fleeing a mangled wreck. All of it only somewhat mitigated by reports of efficient emergency responders swiftly bringing help and order to horrifying chaos.

And once again, the same questions: What was the cause, technical failure or human error? Was it part of a larger pattern of safety failures? Could it have been prevented if the Positive Train Control (PTC) safety system had been installed? Is lack of funding for national infrastructure killing people? Has Congress allowed Amtrak to drag its feet in upgrading safety measures?

The first questions, concerning the cause of this particular accident, will have to wait for a full investigation, of course. What is known so far, however, is that the track the train was on had been manually switched and “lined and locked.” That caused it to divert from the main line and onto a side track, where it rammed into a parked freight train.

“Of course key to this investigation is learning why that switch was lined that way because the expectation is the Amtrak would be cleared and would be operating straight down” the main line, National Transportation Safety Board chairman Robert Sumwalt said at a press conference on Sunday.

The other, more general questions about safety do not have to wait for an investigation. Unfortunately, the answer to each of those questions posed above is: Yes.

Sumwalt stated that the tracks, controlled by a company called CSX, were not equipped with Positive Train Control, which Amtrak has installed on about two-thirds of the tracks it operates. The system is designed to read signals and automatically stop a train before certain accidents occur.

“An operational PTC system is designed to prevent this type of accident,” Sumwalt said. So yes, had it been in place, engineer Michael Kempf, 54, and conductor, Michael Cella, 36, who were in the first car, which was completely destroyed, would likely be alive today.

And yes, the accident does seem to be part of a larger problem, of safety standards going to pieces, symptomatic of the crumbling national infrastructure. Nor was this a revelation that came on Sunday. After a deadly train wreck in Pennsylvania in 2015, Robert Sumwalt at that time declared that the “Amtrak safety culture is failing and is primed to fail again.”

As for the responsibility of government, there too the answer is an appalling affirmative. The need for safety improvement is not a state secret, but known to everyone, and Congress has been unaccountably soft on Amtrak in implementing the available, life-saving technology.

Joshua Gotbaum, an economist currently at the Brookings Institution, himself suffered a knee injury in the May 2015 derailment near Philadelphia. In a furious opinion piece published in The Washington Post after the Seattle derailment in December, he excoriated Congress for giving the rail industry more and more time after deadlines were missed, though more and more cash to pay for the necessary fix was not given.

In 2008, a rail disaster in California in which 28 people died, prompted Congress to require the installation of PTC, but allowing the industry until the end of 2015. Seven years later, when it still hadn’t been done (the railroads complained about the cost and threatened to suspend service if they weren’t given more time), Congress extended the deadline to 2018, and imposed no penalties for the missed deadlines. But don’t think that means all the nation’s tracks will have PTC by the end of this year. There’s a loophole to make sure that doesn’t happen: If railroads “show progress,” they have until 2020 to start using PTC.

As for federal funding, that depends on how serious Washington is about infrastructure. In his recent State of the Union Message, President Donald Trump identified America’s infrastructure as a high priority, and said that he would give his support to a $1.5 trillion public-private spending program to rebuilding the country’s rails, roads, bridges and ports.

This latest Amtrak accident was a tragedy. Lives were lost, many people were hurt. But it should be seized upon as a reason to expedite the installation of PTC, and to get on with the myriad upgrades and renovations that are so vital to every state and city.

“We were on our way to West Virginia, and it was a sudden impact, a loud noise, and everyone was jolted,” Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida recalled, referring to the accident on Feb. 1. Indeed, the Republicans on board were not the only ones to feel a jolt. Everyone did. And now it’s time to act.