Would new speed device have prevented Amtrak accident?

The curve where the Amtrak accident occurred is not yet equipped with a system which automatically slows or even halts trains moving too fast. Such upgrades for US infrastructure – including Amtrak – are part of federal budget debates.

Mel Evans/AP
Emergency personnel walk near the scene of a train wreck in Philadelphia Wednesday. Federal investigators are investigating why an Amtrak train jumped the tracks in Tuesday night's fatal accident.

This week’s passenger train accident in Philadelphia revives long-standing questions about Amtrak funding and how that might relate to maintenance and safety issues for the federally-supported rail line. It also increases the political pressure to improve the nation’s infrastructure system at a time when passenger rail travel in the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston has been growing steadily.

Investigators have just begun to piece together what caused Tuesday night’s derailment, which toppled the engine and seven cars carrying 243 people, killing at least seven and injuring more than 200. The engine’s “black boxes” were recovered Wednesday.

Initial reports citing federal officials indicate the train may have been traveling 100 miles per hour, double the speed it was meant to travel through that portion of the northbound run from Washington to Philadelphia.

Human error and mechanical failings are always prime suspects in accident investigations. In the wake of this latest crash, some officials wonder if a new technology designed to compensate for such failings may have prevented the derailment.

The curve where the accident occurred is not yet equipped with a system called Positive Train Control (PTC), which automatically slows or even halts trains that are moving too fast or heading into a danger zone. Amtrak has begun installing components of a PTC system but the network is not yet functioning, federal officials told Reuters.

“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,” writes Josh Voorhees at Slate.

The debate over expensive safety upgrades is always part of the political discussion for Amtrak – a federally-supported transportation program that has never met its original goal of economic self-sufficiency.

Amtrak derailments have increased in recent years, according to the Federal Railroad Administration’s office of safety analysis. There were two in 2012, three in 2013, six in 2014, and there have been nine so far this year, The Washington Post reports.

Meanwhile, more and more Americans have been using the system – especially in the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks when fears about air travel increased for many. Between 2001 and 2011, according to the federal Northeast Corridor Infrastructure and Operations Advisory Commission, the portion of rail or air travelers between Washington and New York using Amtrak increased from 37 percent to 75 percent. 

More worrisome to supporters of public rail transportation along the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston (NEC) is what the commission calls “infrastructure that is highly constrained and in need of repair.” Some 750,000 passengers a day travel the rail corridor. The Northeast Corridor rail lines are used by eight commuter railroads and four freight railroads as well as Amtrak.

“Hundreds of its bridges and tunnels are now over a century old; major portions of its electric traction power supply system date from the 1930s or earlier; and signal systems rely on decades-old installations. With more than 2,000 trains per day and major segments at or near capacity, operating the NEC leaves little room for error,” the commission reported in January 2013.

“Today, the reality is that after four decades of limited federal, state, and local investment, deferring replacement of key components of the NEC is no longer a sustainable option – infrastructure inherited from past generations can no longer provide the mobility needed to support continued, robust economic growth.” The commission warned. “New investment is essential to modernize systems, reduce failures, and expand capacity for increased service.”

Infrastructure improvement – never the sexiest political issue – has been part of federal budgetary debates for years, and supporters of such improvement were quick to link their cause to Tuesday night’s accident.

"There is clearly more that can be done when we're talking about a railway infrastructure that is decades-old," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on CNN Wednesday. "If there's an opportunity for us to make further investments in our infrastructure that would better safeguard the traveling public, then those are investments that we should make."

Coincidentally, the House Appropriations Committee had been scheduled to meet Wednesday regarding transportation funding. The committee voted 30-21 along party lines for a $55 billion transportation and housing bill that would give Amtrak almost a fifth less than its typical $1.4 billion share, Politico reports. The panel defeated Democratic amendments meant to restore or boost the funding.

US demographics may be at play in Amtrak funding. Passenger rail service is found more in heavily populated areas, which tend to vote Democratic; congressional districts without passenger rail – including Amtrak – are more likely to be vote Republican.

“Of those 184 districts [where nobody travels by train], 116 are currently represented by Republicans,” writes Philip Bump in The Washington Post blog "The Fix." “On average, ridership in Republican districts was about 41,000 in 2014 – compared to 261,000 in Democratic districts.”

While congressional Democrats and Republicans argue over such budget issues, the push for more Amtrak funding – especially as it relates to rail safety – is bipartisan.

"If we're not investing in our safety for the Northeast Corridor, we're not doing what we should be doing down here," Rep. Ryan Costello (R) of Pennsylvania, told CNN. "We need to continue to invest in our passenger rail system ... a critical piece of the economy in the Northeast part of the country."

If history is a guide, Congress may increase funding for rail safety in the wake of this week’s accident – which is what happened in 2008 when a commuter passenger rail train collided with a freight train in Los Angeles killing 25 people and injuring dozens.

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