Amtrak Derailment Shows Need to Employ Standard Safety Technology and Build More Passenger Trains

Tuesday evening’s derailment of Amtrak’s Northeast Regional Train 188 in Philadelphia was tragic and horrifying.  As a frequent Amtrak passenger and cafe car regular, the tragedy hit home when I saw former congressman Patrick Murphy’s photo from inside a ravaged cafe car.


Although Amtrak suffered periodic incidents since its creation under the National Passenger Railroad Act of 1971, most have occurred on tracks owned by freight railroads.  Tuesday’s incident is significant in that it occurred on the North East Corridor (NEC), part of the small fraction of track actually owned by Amtrak.  The NEC is Amtrak’s busiest corridor and is revenue positive (which cannot be said for any non-toll highways).

How should we respond so as to avoid future catastrophe and enhance safety throughout the US transportation system?

First we need to recognize that Amtrak 188’s derailment would not have occurred if standard automatic braking technology were employed at the crash location, and hold to account the institutions responsible for transportation safety.  Secondly, we need not lose sight of the outstanding safety record of passenger rail in America and its contrast to that of the leading killer of Americans between 5 and 34 years old – automobiles. 

Congressionally Negligent Non-use of Standard Railway Safety Technology

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) tweeted that before the engineer slammed on the brake, the train was traveling more than 100 mph around a curve rated for 50 mph.  Myopically, the cause of the derailment was overspeed (as commentators scapegoat the engineer).

However, while the investigation is still underway, NTSB insisted the incident would not have occurred if the stretch of track employed positive train control (PTC), a well-established but expensive technology that prevents train collisions and overspeed.  The fact that Amtrak’s passengers were exposed to human error is a grotesque failure of US institutions in the chain of command up to and including Congress.

PTC will not be a legal requirement in the United States until 2016.  Implementing PTC is technically complex and expensive, but it barely needs to be argued that the US does have the financial resources to ensure safe train travel – cough: Pentagon budget.  Amtrak – a political football under the constant threat of defunding – is hard pressed to implement the technology as quickly as public safety requires.

Less Cars + More Trains = Safer Transportation System

In addition to the need to implement PTC universally, the recent derailment in Philadelphia highlights the need for a massive expansion of passenger rail service throughout the US, as it remains true that rail travel is many times safer than automobile travel.

Over the past half century, our society invested disproportionately in moving private automobiles at great speeds, the combination of which (especially outside limited access freeways) is known to be the most dangerous form of transportation.  Instead, safety of the traveling public would be enhanced by reducing automobile dependence, shifting large numbers of trips to inter-city and commuter rail. 

(Caveat 1:  I would never argue for massive investment in expensive (motorized) rail systems without noting that we should first max-out opportunities for (non-motorized) bicycle and pedestrian transport – the safe, cost-effective modes having near zero externalities.  Caveat 2: The task of “shifting” trips to rail is obviously more involved than I have time to discuss herein.)

A Northwestern University study released in 2013 compared the relative safety of transport modes in the period between 2000 and 2009.   Normalized to a passenger-mile basis (to reflect differences in passenger volume and distances traveled) the data showed a fatality risk for private vehicles 17 times greater than that of trains (if train collisions with cars and trucks are included – i.e. grade crossings).  The fatality risk for private vehicles is 49 times greater if train collisions with cars and trucks are excluded.  (The North East Corridor is free of grade crossings, but most Amtrak service – on tracks owned by freight companies – contains frequent grade crossings.)

US roads and highways experienced an historic low of 32,267 fatalities in 2011.  Amtrak has experienced 158 passenger fatalities since 1975, the majority of which appear to result from people “falling from trains” or collisions with trucks at grade crossings.  For Amtrak passengers to be killed during a derailment (there were 27 in 2011) is exceedingly rare.

In observance of the inherent danger posed by automobiles, and the safety advantages exhibited even by an under-funded railroad lacking automatic braking, it would be in the interest of public safety for our society to reduce automobile dependence by significantly expanding inter-city and commuter passenger rail service on tracks which are free of grade crossings, and with full employment of positive train control. 

Tuesday’s unfortunate incident is an opportunity to tell your congressional representatives  and the president to protect the traveling public by enhancing the safety and capacity of passenger rail infrastructure throughout the United States. 

One thought on “Amtrak Derailment Shows Need to Employ Standard Safety Technology and Build More Passenger Trains

  1. Pingback: Why Aren’t We Outraged About 90 Automobile Deaths Everyday? | Rebuilding The Rust Belt

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