The Slatest

Our Nation’s Rail System Is a Mess. Congress Needs to Step Up, or Expect More Horrible Accidents.

Emergency workers search for the injured after an Amtrak passenger train carrying more than 200 passengers from Washington, D.C., to New York derailed May 12, 2015, in north Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images

At least seven people were killed and untold more were injured on Tuesday night when a New York-bound Amtrak trained jumped the tracks while going around a dangerous bend in Philadelphia. Emergency crews had only just begun picking through the wreckage by the time politicians—past, present, and fake—were lamenting the sorry state of American railroads.

I’m not going to #slatepitch this one: While it is too soon to say exactly what caused the fatal accident, such complaints are valid and necessary. Derailments can be caused by a number of issues, but are most often the result of train or track malfunctions, driver error, or some combination of factors. The National Transportation Safety Board probe is still in its early stages, but speed appears to be among the most likely factors. According to the Wall Street Journal, the train is believed to have been travelling at close to 100 miles per hour when it entered the sharp curve that proved fatal, roughly twice the 50 mph limit for that section of the track. We don’t know why the train didn’t slow down in time, but we do know one reason that it didn’t: The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the curve where Tuesday’s crash took place is not yet equipped with what is known as Positive Train Control, technology that can automatically slow a speeding train as it enters speed-restricted stretches. Under a 2008 rail safety law, railroads have until the end of this year to implement the technology across most heavily traveled lines—a deadline that railroads are likely to miss.

Even if the state of disrepair of the nation’s rail network did not cause the crash, it’s reasonable to speculate that a better-funded and -maintained system could have helped prevent it.

The accident occurred in the Northeast Corridor, which runs from Washington, D.C., to Boston and is the nation’s busiest and most profitable passenger rail corridor. For a window onto how the tracks along that corridor are maintained, one need only look at the high-speed Acela Express, which uses many of the same tracks that the derailed Northeast Regional train traversed. While the Acela is the only U.S. train that exceeds the 110-mph threshold necessary to earn a federal “high-speed” classification—and despite the fact it’s able to reach 150 mph along some portions of the route—it only manages to average 68 mph because of how the tracks are laid and maintained. Drivers on the corridor have to repeatedly speed up and slow down as they navigate winding tracks they share with freight carriers. Tuesday’s accident, for example, occurred at the Frankford Junction, a bend that the Associated Press is calling a “notorious curve” because it was previously the site of one of the nation’s deadliest train wrecks seven decades ago.

That the nation’s transportation system is underfunded is no secret: The rail system earned a C-plus on the American Society of Civil Engineers’ most recent infrastructure report card, which pegged the funding needs for the Northeast Corridor—for both Amtrak and the eight commuter railroads that use the passage—at about $10 billion over the next 15 or so years to achieve a state of good repair and boost capacity by 40 percent. According to officials who operate the Northeast Corridor, meanwhile, the route faces a $1 billion annual shortfall in capital needs—and has a “state-of-good-repair backlog” of 11,100 major projects and 4,800 basic infrastructure ones on its main Amtrak line. Implementing Positive Train Control and other safety measures up and down the corridor is near the top of the corridor’s to-do list.

Congress, however, has shown little interest in funneling more federal cash to the nation’s passenger rail system, either in the Northeast Corridor or elsewhere. The federal government provides Amtrak with about $1.4 billion a year—but conservatives have long hoped to trim that number significantly. On Wednesday a House committee began marking up a GOP spending bill that would cut Amtrak funding to $1.1 billion a year. Longer-term transportation planning, meanwhile, remains stuck in Washington’s current gridlock.

One major reason that the status quo is so harmful to the Northeast Corridor is because Congress demands Amtrak operate like a profit-seeking business, while at the same time requiring the agency to continue running little-used and money-losing lines, something no business would do. Every penny Amtrak spends servicing a line like the California Zephyr that spans the 2,400-odd miles from Chicago to California—which carried 376,459 people in 2012 at a whopping cost of $112.5 million—is a penny it can’t spend on making improvements along the Northeast Corridor, which transports more than 11 million people a year. There’s certainly a case to be made that as long as taxpayers are chipping in, Amtrak needs to service the entire country. But if lawmakers believe that, it’s about time they acknowledge an accompanying reality: Someone needs to pay for it.