I grew up watching trains crossing tracks less than a mile from my home in Alabama, counting cars while patiently waiting for the caboose to end the parade. At night, the sound of a train whistle followed by the rumble of an engine pulling freight as it approached and then faded into the distance was like a lullaby. But I never rode a train until I was an adult, many decades later.
These days, I ride the Amtrak quite a few times a year; sometimes to New York, but more often headed south to Virginia to visit grandchildren. On those trips, the thought of an accident like last week’s derailment in Philadelphia that killed eight people never entered my mind. The most that has happened to me aboard the Northeast Regional was being stuck in a station for an hour after the train lost power.
The derailment brought to mind the most exciting and boring train ride I have ever made — from Xian to Beijing, a 750-mile trek that took less than six hours aboard one of China’s high-speed trains. It was exciting to know you were traveling 300 kilometers (about 186 miles) an hour, but boring because you would never know it. The ride was smooth even when we slowed for infrequent stops. Peering at the landscape through the window indicated you were going fast, but it didn’t seem that fast. In fact, it was more interesting to watch how the maids in each car scrambled to keep them spotless, even mopping the floor at regular intervals.
I don’t think enough people in this country realize how far behind other nations we are in some areas, including rail travel. Congress’ apparent belief that rail travel is old fashioned is itself out of date. Decades ago, it may have looked like trains would go the route of the horse and buggy as more and more people traveled either by air or car. But that hasn’t happened. Instead, the number of people taking advantage of the convenience of trains continues to grow, especially in the Northeast, where an abundance of rail lines makes it easy.
The 457-mile Northeast Corridor connecting Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston serves 200 million commuter-rail and 13 million Amtrak riders every day. Amtrak ridership has increased nearly 50 percent since 2000, to more than 32 million passengers annually. Yet Congress still balks at providing adequate funding to Amtrak. Not even the derailment kept the House Appropriations Committee from voting to reduce Amtrak’s allocation from last year’s $1.4 billion to $1.13 billion.
It’s true that increased ridership hasn’t made Amtrak profitable. It lost $1 billion last fiscal year, with total revenue of $3.2 billion. But Amtrak began its existence mired in a deep fiscal hole created by the private railroads it replaced in 1971 — and it has made some bad spending and route decisions that it is still trying to correct. But Amtrak can’t be successful without the funding needed to upgrade ancient tracks, wooden ties, and other infrastructure to make it a safer, more viable option for travelers.
It’s believed that the Philadelphia derailment might have been prevented had that section of track been equipped with the new “positive train control” system, which by federal law must be installed on all passenger and major freight railroads by the end of 2015. Cost is one reason PTC has not yet been installed throughout the Amtrak system. A less sophisticated “automatic train control” system was also missing from the northbound tracks where the Philadelphia derailment occurred, although ATC did exist on the southbound tracks. Was that a cost-saving decision too?
China spends $128 billion a year on rail transportation and Congress wants to give Amtrak barely $1 billion. Well, you get what you pay for — and what Americans are getting is a train system with bad rails, dilapidated infrastructure, and missing safety systems that might have prevented eight deaths. Even if an investigation finds that the Philadelphia derailment was primarily the result of human error, it’s also clear that the tragedy might have been averted with electronic equipment that could have slowed that speeding train. Isn’t that worth properly investing in Amtrak?
Harold Jackson is The Inquirer’s editorial page editor.