Amid spate of Amtrak mishaps, critics point to political inertia

Railroad safety has improved, but deadly mishaps including a South Carolina crash Sunday reveal a need for further gains. Experts say rules and funding decisions in Washington are part of the challenge.

Mel Evans/AP/File
A view of the train tunnel under the Hudson River as seen from the back of an Amtrak train bound for New York's Penn Station. President Trump has called for a new $1.5 trillion infrastructure program, but his budget also calls for Amtrak cuts, and it's unclear how much money, if any, will go toward rail projects including upgrades needed in New York.

Amtrak engineer Michael Kempf confessed recently to his brother that he had become increasingly worried about his own safety amid a string of deadly US train crashes.

Mr. Kempf, an Amtrak engineer from Savannah, Ga., was among two railroad employees killed as Train 91 from New York to Miami rolled through the South Carolina countryside early Sunday morning before crashing into a prone freight train. More than 100 passengers were hurt, most lightly.

It was the seventh major train accident for Amtrak in recent years, and the fourth incident in about two months.

Such private fears about getting hurt on the job ​– raised by a front-line engineer, and reported by the New York Daily News – symbolize a troubling set of realities facing not just Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson, but also the US Congress as it confronts a looming debate on infrastructure funding.

Since President Nixon and a near-unanimous Congress moved to create the quasi-public rail giant in 1971, Washington has saddled Amtrak with the Sisyphean task of building profitable ridership while managing chronic funding shortages that have yielded a repair backlog exceeding $24 billion in its busy Northeast Corridor alone.

Now, Mr. Anderson, formerly head of Delta Airlines, is being leaned on to fast-track new standards and equipment that can tie safety more firmly to profit incentives. Yet White House budget cuts targeting Amtrak amplify a passenger-rail paradox: an industry that runs on kinetic energy is challenged by political and bureaucratic inertia.

“How to get railroads back in the frontal lobes of both Congress and the public is a real challenge,” says MIT-trained signaling expert Steven Ditmeyer. But it may be starting to happen, he says. “I’m taking the Amtrak train on Wednesday to New York from Washington and I will be sensitive to these recent incidents, hoping that everybody is doing things properly.”

Ridership rising, safety improving

As Amtrak continues to gain passengers (total passenger trips neared 32 million in 2017) while maintaining 21,000 miles of track connecting 500 communities in 44 states, it remains one of the safest alternatives ​– far safer, mile for mile, than road travel.

“It’s actually getting better,” says Russell G. Quimby, a rail safety expert at Quimby Consulting in Omaha. Neb. The system’s safety record has improved over the past decade, he says, and the company has largely installed automated braking technology across its busy Northeast corridor, to head off accidents like the recent ones.

But “Amtrak has been underfunded for years. It’s always popular for politicians to turn around and say, ‘Hey look at all this money that’s being wasted on Amtrak.’ If they want to [keep] Amtrak, they need to face up to their obligations.”

Yes, Amtrak is subsidized, but so are other forms of transportation systems from roads to airports, Mr. Quimby notes. And rail has some compelling advantages. A train uses only about one gallon of fuel to move a one-ton load for 400 miles, he says. Whether that’s passengers or freight, “that’s a highly efficient system. We need railroads.”

Recent incidents

But three of the most recent accidents also showcase stubborn vulnerabilities, primarily the slow implementation of positive train control (PTC), the congressionally mandated GPS-centered safety system that can override technical and operator errors to automatically stop trains before they wreck.

While Amtrak has put PTC on nearly two-thirds of its tracks, freight companies that share tracks with passenger trains have been far slower, winning waivers from Congress to delay implementation as the technical challenges and costs mount.

The system was not operational near Tacoma on Dec. 18, where a train derailed over an interstate bridge, leaving railcars dangling off the track. It was also not in operation last week in Virginia when a train chartered by House Republicans hit a garbage truck straddling the track. A small railroad company that owned the tracks had been exempted from tying railroad crossings into the PTC system. Investigators are trying to determine whether a faulty crossing gate may have contributed to the crash, and could have been detected.

And on Sunday in Cayce, S.C., PTC, if operational, may have been able to warn of a switch error or malfunction that caused the Amtrak train to follow a freight train onto a siding and crash.

Confounding safety investigations like the one in Tacoma are complicated maintenance agreements between different entities that make it difficult to pin blame. On Sunday, Mr. Anderson blamed the rail owner, CSX, for the switch issue that led the passenger locomotive astray.

Because Amtrak has installed PTC on the tracks it owns but is forced to use tracks owned by others, “this is a case where Amtrak is not 100 percent in control of its own destiny,” says Allan Zarembski, a University of Delaware expert on railroad safety.

Undergirding those problems is an institutional aversion to change, of which Congress bears some blame, says Ditmeyer.

In 2015, former Federal Railroad Administration chief Sarah Feinberg “lectured the railroads and said, ‘Don’t wait until 2018 [to fully implement PTC,] get going on it now,’ " Ditmeyer says. “But when she did that, the railroads got upset and got Congress to [add a law] that said, ‘Well, if railroads are showing good progress, they get an extension until 2020’.... The railroads take the position of doing only the minimum required by law.”

To be sure, the four big US freight rail companies have spent $8 billion over a decade. In context, Burlington Northern Santa Fe made revenues north of $5 billion in 2017 and spent $200 million on PTC. But Amtrak has completed more of the installation despite facing chronic funding shortages, largely the result of opposition from rural GOP interests that don’t see the benefits of the system.

Debate over subsidies

Amtrak faces a $630 million budget cut as the Trump administration attempts to steer the rail giant to focus more on its profitable routes, like the ones that crisscross the Northeast Corridor.

“People might say, Well, goodness gracious, that doesn’t line up with what the president said about a commitment to infrastructure,” Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney during a call with the American Road and Transportation Builders Association last year. “That was done intentionally. What we’ve effectively done is try to move money out of existing, more inefficient programs and hold that money for what we expect to be more efficient infrastructure programs later on.”

The Trump administration’s moves to force Amtrak to focus on profitable routes “has a fundamental problem, which is that passenger train operations are not for profit entities,” says Zarembski. “The vast majority of railroads are subsidized just like highways.”

Amtrak leaders have made similar points.

“Look, this is basic infrastructure,” CEO Anderson told CBS News last fall. “I think the subsidy last year for highways was $40 billion, subsidy for aviation was about $16 billion and when you think about what we do and what’s sort of fundamental to public policy, it’s to fund infrastructure.” (Amtrak’s subsidy totaled $1.8 billion last year.)

And former Amtrak CEO Charles Moorman told a House Committee in October, “We are working relentlessly to improve our safety culture, modernize and upgrade our products, leverage our asset portfolio, and strengthen our operational efficiency and project delivery. [But] capital funding is not keeping pace with the risks facing Amtrak’s infrastructure and fleet.”

A friend of the other Amtrak employee killed Sunday, conductor Michael Cella, noted in a TV interview that he hopes a broader “blame game” doesn’t take over that debate. “I want [Mr. Cella’s] legacy to be that they improve safety on the railroad because of what happened Sunday.”

Staff writers Mark Trumbull and Laurent Belsie contributed to this story.

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