An Amtrak train on its maiden voyage from Seattle to Portland derailed above Interstate 5 on Monday.
An Amtrak train on its maiden voyage from Seattle to Portland derailed above Interstate 5 on Monday. Elaine Thompson/AP

The fatal derailment in Washington is the latest reminder of how the U.S. gives train passengers short shrift.

Federal officials are still investigating the cause of fatal Amtrak derailment in Washington state on Monday morning, but excessive speed seems to be an obvious factor. One less obvious factor: a lack of accountability.

On its maiden voyage on freshly upgraded tracks, a brand-new train traveling 50 miles south of Seattle peeled off the rails just outside an I-5 overpass. Officials have confirmed that the train was traveling 80 mph as it tried to negotiate a curve with a 30-mph speed limit. National Transportation Safety Board investigators will find out in time what, if any, other factors played a role—track problems, for example, are the number-one cause of train accidents. But the centrifugal force of a train hurtling nearly three times faster than its tracks are designed to support—that is, without the proper banking or curve radius—has caused many fatal incidents in the past. On Monday, the Cascade cars hurtled into the vehicle traffic on I-5 below. Three people are dead, and many have been hospitalized, some with serious injuries.

Nearly a decade’s worth of planning, rerouting, track upgrades, and testing had gone into the Cascades line to the tune of $181 million, much of it federal grant funding with a 2017 deadline. The purpose: shaving a few minutes off the journey between Seattle and Portland. “Time is money,” the line’s official website explains, in a section addressing safety concerns related to the increased speed of the train. A number of local communities had resisted the train’s new inland route; formerly Cascades trains shared tracks with freight trains along a coastal route, where it was often delayed by freight traffic. On Monday, the ill-fated Amtrak train was running about 25 minutes late out of the Tacoma station. Perhaps the operator had been trying to make up for lost time on opening day.

Much has been made of the fact that, once again, positive train control—the automatic braking technology, integrated between cars and tracks, that can detect danger and halt trains—had not been switched on. In 2008, shortly after a fatal collision on Metrolink in L.A. County, Congress mandated PTC implementation on all railroads that carry passengers and/or potentially toxic freight by 2015. Although the upgraded trains and tracks in Washington were equipped for the technology, the system was not slated to go live, corridor-wide, until 2018.

While it remains to be seen whether PTC would have stopped this particular accident, it certainly fits the description. PTC is built to address the roughly 40 percent of train accidents caused by human error, by making sure all operations are according with speed limits, signals, and other rules. “PTC would prevent types of accidents such as this,” T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, an NTSB board member, told CNN. The Federal Railroad Administration has called the system the “single-most important rail safety development in more than a century.”

But in the near-decade since that 2008 Metrolink accident, high-profile incidents in Philadelphia, the Bronx, New Jersey, and now Washington have cost passenger lives. And they haven’t necessarily made what seems like an urgent safety precaution much more urgent. Nationwide implementation of PTC is an incredibly costly and complicated mandate, beset by regulatory, logistical and financial hurdles that companies have largely been left to overcome on their own, since Congress left its 2008 order largely unfunded. Many operators have a long way to go.

The freight company BNSF owns the majority of the Cascades line route, and it’s ahead of the pack when it comes to PTC implementation. Some of the tracks Amtrak runs on are owned by regional commuter operators, like Sound Transit, which owns the track segment the Cascades train careened off of Monday. Sound Transit had installed PTC, but it hadn’t been fully integrated with the train cars on Monday. The mere fact that these timelines were so misaligned is troubling. Something is deeply amiss when a brand-new passenger train is not up to a safety standard established by law ten years ago.

It will be up to NTSB officials to apportion blame between the various entities involved in this latest rail tragedy. Amtrak, the operator, likely deserves some. But as far as PTC goes, Amtrak ultimately has little say or sway over how quickly implementation happens on these tracks. The nation’s largest passenger rail carrier does not own the vast majority of the tracks it operates on. About 97 percent are owned by private freight operators like BNSF. Public pressure for safety upgrades may spike after fatal accidents, but the companies that own the most lines are largely focused on freight. They have generally dragged their feet, sparring with regulators over the costs and deadlines of PTC, largely unpenalized.

With so little federal funding available specifically for PTC, regional passenger rail operators often prefer to spend their limited funds making service faster and more frequent. The cost of cleaning up the Cascades calamity may now outweigh that of integrating PTC.  

President Trump’s tweet in response to the Cascades crash is one extreme way to illustrate the disconnect between expectations of and responsibility for passenger rail: He used the opportunity to complain, as he often did on the campaign trail, about how U.S. infrastructure spending pales in comparison to that of the Middle East.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s federal budget calls for deep cuts to Amtrak funding, and the latest version of his infrastructure package is more or less to make states and cities pay for roads, tracks, and bridges. Further complicating their challenge: The GOP’s tax bill is likely to cut state budgets, especially in high-population coastal states that could be better served by rail.

Amtrak ended its fiscal year with a long list of superlatives: It boasted record ridership and revenue in 2017, buoyed by a recovering economy. Nationwide, America’s oft-beleaguered passenger rail system has a long list of current and coming upgrades that are worth touting. But passenger rail has a real accountability problem. It’s hard to see how Amtrak can run faster, more often, and more safely when no one will pay for it. (Meanwhile, we’ve had no problem forking out for highways, where far more Americans die every year compared to railroads.)

That puts states like Washington in a tough position. They want to improve passenger rail service between booming urban centers, and lure more automotive commuters off their increasingly congested highways. But private rail operators—which, thanks to the deadline extension, have faced virtually no penalties for neglecting PTC—have little incentive, let alone aid, to speed up the needed safety upgrades.

So should Washington roll out an upgraded rail system, even if PTC isn’t in place yet, when a rare piece of federal funding with a hard deadline comes their way? Or should they wait, continuing to run out-of-date systems on routes where passengers play second fiddle to freight lines, and keep losing potential passengers (and income) to drivers? Amtrak ridership may be through the roof, but somehow its passengers keep losing.

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