The Amtrak derailment near Tacoma, Wash., that killed three people last week may well have been partly the individual failure of an engineer who was going much too fast. It was also, however, yet another demonstration of this country’s collective, continuing failure to invest in infrastructure.
Though their inquiries are not complete, investigators have determined that the train, which was going from Seattle to Portland, Ore., was traveling at 78 miles per hour as it approached a turn that has a 30-m.p.h. speed limit. The circumstances are eerily similar to a 2015 Amtrak crash near Philadelphia in which eight people were killed when a train derailed as it sped through a sharp curve.
In both cases, the trains were operating without the benefit of a system known as positive train control, which can automatically slow down or stop a train when human operators fail to do so. This technology is not some hot new thing. The National Transportation Safety Board has been recommending it for nearly half a century. For various reasons — including bureaucratic inertia and penny-pinching — many railroads still don’t have functioning systems in place.
In 2008, after a rail accident in California killed 25 people, Congress required all railroads to install positive train control by the end of 2015. But after many railroads complained that they were not close to completing the task, lawmakers in late 2015 gave them another three years to comply. They also allowed the Department of Transportation to grant extensions of an additional two years on a case-by-case basis if railroads achieved certain milestones.
While some railroads like Metrolink in Southern California now use the technology, many railroads, including New Jersey Transit, have made far too little progress, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. The industry, which includes many private freight railroads, clearly deserves much of the blame for dragging its feet. But so do federal and state governments, which have not only failed to push the industry harder but have never appropriated enough money to allow public transit agencies to upgrade their systems or held railroad officials accountable for delays. Amtrak says most of its Northeast Corridor has a functioning positive train control system, but that is not true across its national network, which includes track and equipment that is owned and has to be updated by other companies and agencies.
The halting progress is emblematic of the country’s larger transportation problems — its potholed roads, dysfunctional subways, dilapidated bridges and shabby airports. Some had hoped this would change under President Trump, who promised during the election to invest $1 trillion in infrastructure. Last week, he wrote on Twitter that the Amtrak derailment “shows more than ever why our soon to be submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly.”
It is hard to take this declaration seriously, though, given his administration’s lack of effort. The White House raised hopes when it held an “infrastructure week” in early June. It’s understandable if you don’t recall anything about that week; it was all smoke and mirrors. The one document from which we might actually learn something about the administration’s intentions — the 2018 budget — proposes a long list of cuts. Grants to Amtrak would be slashed by $630 million, or 45 percent; the Capital Investment Grants program, which supports rail and transit projects around the country, would lose $928 million, or 43 percent; a popular $500 million transportation program known as Tiger, which invests in road, rail, transit and port projects, would be eliminated.
According to some recent press reports, the administration is now developing a plan that would shift much of the burden of new spending on infrastructure to state and local governments and the private sector. This will not work. The recently passed Republican tax bill will make it very difficult for state and local governments to raise new money because its citizens will no longer be able to deduct state and local taxes from their federal income taxes. And while private investors would be interested in revenue-generating projects like toll roads, they are unlikely to fund safety improvements like positive train control.
If Mr. Trump were serious, he would get Congress to increase direct federal spending on infrastructure and pay for it by repealing some of the giant tax cuts it just handed to corporations and wealthy families. That’s a pipe dream, of course. Just like Mr. Trump’s promises to rebuild America.
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