Off the Rails: The Train Crash ‘Epidemic’ in the US

Although it has been positively swamped by the news of the Nunes memo, you may have heard about another Amtrak crash over the weekend, this time in South Carolina. The crash, between an Amtrak passenger train and a CSX freight train carrying automobiles, killed two Amtrak employees and injured over 100 passengers on the train. This accident comes fast on the heels of a separate, high-profile crash of an Amtrak train, ferrying GOP members of Congress from Washington DC to a retreat in West Virginia, into a garbage truck that was parked on the tracks. That crash, which happened on January 31, killed one man who was on the truck and injured six train passengers. Just a few weeks prior to that incident, an Amtrak train on its maiden journey across brand-new track laid from Seattle to Portland jumped the rails off an overpass in Tacoma, Washington, killing 3 people and injuring nearly 100 more.

These rapid-fire crashes are just the most recent in a long string of worrying incidents involving passenger or freight trains to take place over the last few years. Some other memorable accidents include a 2015 derailment of an Amtrak train in Philadelphia that killed 8 people, a 2013 derailment of a Metro-North train in the Bronx that killed 4 people, a 2016 crash of an NJ Transit train in Hoboken, NJ that killed 1 person, and a 2008 crash in Los Angeles that killed 25. These accidents, just samples of some of the recent crashes that have taken place on American rails, are a disturbing sign of the state of our nation’s transportation infrastructure, particularly involving our private and public railroad companies. Most of the accidents I’ve listed above, including the ones which have occurred in recent months, were entirely avoidable and occurred due to operator error. Frequent causes are extreme speed in areas which have low speed limits (like curves), failure to apply train brakes at stop lights or when entering stations, or even instances when two trains, traveling in opposite directions, share the same length of track. None of these things should happen, and they rarely do in other developed nations which use rail far more heavily as a means of transit than we do here in the US.

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Aerial photo of the deadly 2016 Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia.      Image Credit: NY Daily News

One of the reasons why we are seemingly seeing an increase in the number of rail accidents is due to the fact that we are actually increasing our use of railroads for passenger as well as freight transport. According to the US Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics, rail mileage for both freight and passengers has vastly increased since the 1960s, and with more miles being traveled, there is more opportunity for incidents. Overall, accidents and fatalities involving trains have declined substantially since that era, but the decline is mostly attributable to fewer deaths involving trains and other vehicles colliding at crossings (called ‘grade crossings’ in the data). The decline in other train deaths and accidents is far less marked than it would otherwise seem, and given the advances in technology made since the 1960s, one would assume our railroads would be included in those safety improvements. Unfortunately, safety has long been a bugbear of the railroad industry, as that sector has been largely dedicated to keeping its costs low above all else for the past century or so, mostly due to the low profit margins of the rail industry.

Over the long history of rail in the United States, safety has been an issue that has come up time and time again. Nearly every time there has been a major advance in safety technology, the government has had to require that railroad companies install it, as the companies themselves are too concerned with their bottom-lines to invest the money needed to make their operations safer for the general public. From air brakes and automatic coupling way back at the turn of the century to automated crossing markers in the mid 20th century, government mandates have driven most of the important railroad safety improvements we take for granted today and which have reduced fatalities on the rails. The newest, most useful rail safety technology of the modern era, Positive Train Control (PTC), is the latest technology that the government has had to force railroads to adopt. This system uses GPS satellites to track trains, manage their speed and routing, and interact with control systems used by railroad dispatchers. It has been proven to reduce the type of accidents we are today so accustomed to seeing. PTC can automatically manage the speed of trains going into slow zones, ensure that only one train is on a track at once, and stop trains if the conductor fails to brake. Almost all nations in Europe with significant rail infrastructure, as well as Asian nations like Japan, use this technology to maintain safety on their rail systems. Yet here in the US, it is nowhere to be found. Why?

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Graphic depiction of Positive Train Control.      Image Credit: Chicago Tribune

In the end, it comes back to money. Positive Train Control is not a cheap technology to install on one’s system, but it yields strong profits in the long-term, not only through improved safety records, but also through far better transit routing, enhanced efficiency, and less downtime. The technology is so good at reducing the human error accidents that have been seen in the examples of Philadelphia, the Bronx, and now South Carolina, that the federal government passed a law mandating the installation of PTC across the nation’s railroads by 2015. As you may be able to tell, we’re beyond 2015 at this point and most railroads do not have PTC installed. Are they being fined, or otherwise penalized? Nope, they just lobbied Congress for an extension of the deadline to the end of this calendar year, 2018. I’m forecasting another extension of the deadline, as the large freight railroads are not on schedule to have their PTC improvements finalized by the end of the year. This all comes back to a fundamental American problem: our crisis of short-term thinking. Our businesses, government, and even individuals are stuck thinking in a very short-term mindset, and we seem unable to consider the bigger picture or a time horizon longer than a few months or a year when making crucial decisions. Positive Train Control is clearly a good investment in the 5 to 10 year time horizon, yet railroads need government intervention to make that choice. And the government is easily willing to allow railroads to defer that investment if they are lobbied hard enough. If we all had better long-term thinking skills, PTC would have been installed long ago and many of these fatal accidents could have been avoided.

Unfortunately, I don’t see our short-term thinking crisis being solved anytime soon, but I am optimistic that all of these high-profile rail crashes may incentivize Congress to actually enforce the law and mandate that PTC be added to all of our railroads by the currently proposed timeline: the end of this year.

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