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Build It Better

All the infrastructure spending in the world won’t save us from ourselves.

First responders are at the scene of the Amtrak passenger train that derailed and is hanging from a bridge over the Interstate 5 in DuPont, Washington, on Monday.
First responders are at the scene as the Amtrak passenger train that derailed hangs from a bridge over Interstate 5 in DuPont, Washington, on Monday.
Nick Adams/Reuters

On Monday morning, an Amtrak train in Washington state went flying off the rails onto Interstate 5, killing three and injuring dozens. President Trump saw the crash as another picture in his gallery of American decline. The accident, he wrote on Twitter, “shows more than ever why our soon to be submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly. Seen trillion dollars spent in the Middle East while our roads, bridges, tunnels, railways (and more) crumble! Not for long!”

His critics retorted that this was a bit rich after Republicans in Congress, with all the restraint of Daffy Duck in a treasure cave (“Consequences shmonsequences, as long as I’m rich!”), pushed a hastily drafted tax bill adding $1.5 trillion to the deficit. Coming on the heels of Sunday’s 12-hour power failure at the Atlanta airport, the Amtrak wreck could also be seen as a warning on the dangers of transferring billions from public to private hands.

But, of course, neither the president nor his critics bothered to find out what went wrong in Washington. What did happen indeed says something about American infrastructure—but not necessarily about its funding.

Shortly before dawn, an Amtrak train carrying 78 passengers derailed on a bend just south of Tacoma. But the track bed wasn’t crumbling from age and neglect, because it was part of the freshly opened, $181 million Point Defiance Bypass project that allows passenger trains to avoid a congested stretch of freight track along the Puget Sound. That improvement was funded by the nearly $800 million in stimulus money for high-speed rail that Washington received from the 2009 stimulus act.

The Amtrak Cascades corridor is not high-speed rail by any accepted international definition—its top speed is 79 mph, which is about how fast commuter trains can travel around New York City. Still, the straightened track was to save time and reduce delays from freight trains. Amtrak Train 501 was running the track’s inaugural service journey on Monday.

The National Transportation Safety Board will conduct a full investigation, but it appears likely that this was a case of a train going too fast. The curve where the train derailed had a posted speed limit of 30 mph; witnesses said the train was going 70 to 80. Transitdocs.com, which pulls speed data from Amtrak’s public train tracker, last reported the speed of the train at 81 mph 1,400 yards before the crash site. Railroads call this an “overspeed” incident, and it could have been caused by driver error, a broken signal, or a defect in the train’s brand-new locomotive.

But whatever the cause, if the train was going too fast, the crash would have been averted by a functioning Positive Train Control system, the automatic braking technology that has become the global standard on busy railways. Perhaps the name rings a bell: PTC also would have averted the 2013 Metro-North train crash in New York City, when a commuter train traveling 82 mph derailed on a 30 mph curve, killing four passengers. And it would have prevented a similar incident in 2015, when an Amtrak train going twice the speed limit derailed in Philadelphia. And the 2016 crash of a commuter train in New Jersey, which smashed into Hoboken terminal, killing one person.

After a passenger train crashed on the outskirts of Los Angeles in 2008, Congress required most of the nation’s freight and passenger railways to install PTC technology by the end of 2015. But freight companies and public agencies couldn’t meet the deadline, and in 2015, Congress gave them a three-to-five-year extension. Commuter rail agencies griped for years that PTC was an unfunded federal mandate; freight carriers said it was unjustified. But the whole process—from the blanket congressional order to railroads’ inability to adopt the technology—speaks far more to a general state of dysfunction in American infrastructure management than to a lack of federal funding.

You could argue that this problem still comes back to money. But in Washington, PTC equipment had already been installed on that stretch of track. It was just not yet activated. The National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation will ask why the bypass was opened without the technology in place. Whether or not the blame falls on Amtrak, the company has its own problems on its plate. At an NTSB hearing last month in D.C., Amtrak was pilloried for a “failing” safety culture. The board found 24 different safety violations during a deadly 2016 crash when a Northeast Corridor train hit a backhoe outside Philadelphia.

It is easy to echo the “roads and bridges” chorus that sounds every time there’s an accident. There are political reasons not to dig deeper. Democrats, reluctant to discredit public spending, don’t want to add grist to the privatization mill. (And, of course, Republicans will offer bad-faith reforms designed to sell off public assets.) Railfans will gripe that a train crash leads the news while the 100-odd daily auto fatalities go ignored. That’s fair! But it’s also true that the passenger train accidents in this country are anomalous. If you want America to build nice things, you have to confront an uncomfortable fact: The problems with the construction and maintenance of our infrastructure, on rails and elsewhere, go way beyond the checkbook. Infrastructure reform doesn’t have to be a disingenuous excuse for spending cuts. The better we build, the more we can build.

For example: States spend most of their transportation money on new construction, not maintenance, leading to a climate in which the things we use most fall apart while politicians cut ribbons on far-flung new roads and bridges. Expensive and risky endeavors, like Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement tunnel, are chosen over no-build solutions. Flagship projects suffer from embarrassing defects (like California’s Bay Bridge) and outrageous cost overruns (like New York’s Oculus). Construction-sector productivity is lower than it was 50 years ago.

Public money is funneled into useless pet projects like airport trains or private enterprises like stadiums while those that are needed, like Manhattan’s Second Avenue Subway, smash global cost records. And even a bridge being lifted on its own foundations (in Bayonne, New Jersey) requires 5,000 pages of environmental review. These are not problems driven by a national lack of funding but by mismanagement and misplaced priorities.

Just look at Atlanta. On Sunday, when the world’s busiest airport was plunged into darkness for 12 hours, Mayor Kasim Reed told reporters that the fire that took out the airport’s power system had also destroyed the airport’s backup power system, because all the cables shared space in the same tunnel. “They put all their eggs in one basket and that basket caught on fire,” a switch salesman told the Wall Street Journal.

On an immediate level, that very bad decision was one motivated by the desire to save money. But any accounting for the possibility of a disaster like Sunday’s—which will probably cost Delta alone more than $100 million—would have revealed that a better design ultimately made financial sense. Not more, bigger, newer infrastructure. Just better.

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