With Amtrak crash, Congress faced a deadly rail danger firsthand

With Amtrak crash, Congress faced a deadly rail danger firsthand
© Twitter/Rep. Greg Walden

On Wednesday morning, I asked my staff to post a cautionary video of a truck driver in Florida ignoring flashing lights and lowered crossing gates to drive across the tracks, narrowly avoiding crashing into a Brightline train. Hours later, Republican members of Congress were involved in an accident when the Amtrak train they were riding hit a garbage truck at a grade crossing outside Charlottesville, Virginia. The driver appears to have ignored flashing lights and lowered crossing gates in an attempt to beat the train across the tracks.

Was this a premonition? A coincidence?

Sadly, neither. 

You don’t have to be a psychic to predict these accidents. In the U.S., a person or vehicle gets hit by a train every three hours, accounting for 96 percent of rail industry fatalities. Of course, most of these incidents involve freight trains, and most casualties are not members of Congress, so they don’t get the same media attention. But the loss is real, and it begs the question: What needs to be done?

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Foremost is public education. Much of this comes down to unsafe behavior by drivers and pedestrians who ignore common-sense rules. It’s why we posted the near-collision video on Wednesday morning. People need to understand the risks involved in trying to race a train.

 

There are also real policy prescriptions. Congress enacted Section 130, a federal program that provides states with dedicated funding to make safety upgrades to highway-rail grade crossings. This program has invested $2 billion over the past decade, and it’s produced real results: a 23 percent reduction in fatalities and a 33 percent reduction in rail trespassing fatalities. 

That’s a drop in the bucket considering the number of rail crossings in the US, and there’s much more that can be done. With an absence of federal leadership, some states are leading the way.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation launched the Sealed Corridor Program along the Raleigh-Charlotte corridor to eliminate or improve rail-highway grade crossings. By using enhanced track control devices, crossing closures, and grade separations, they’ve lowered the number of unprotected crossings from more than 3,500 in 1992 to 1,640 today. A USDOT analysis found a 67 percent to 98 percent reduction in gate violations, saving an estimated 20 lives over a 10-year period. Sealed corridors work, but they require funding — something Congress has proved unable to act on.

It’s a familiar story. Congress mandated implementation of Positive Train Control safety technology following a deadly commuter rail collision in 2008. But funding never materialized, so deadlines were extended. More PTC-preventable accidents occurred, and more lives were lost — just this last December two Rail Passengers Association members were killed in a derailment in Washington state.

This Congress seems to require a looming crisis to pass legislation. Even now, there are hundreds of millions of dollars in additional funding for rail safety grant programs, approved on a bipartisan basis in the summer... but currently trapped in limbo because Congress can’t pass a budget, instead limping from one short-term continuing resolution to another.

Perhaps this week’s train collision will be the crisis Congress needs to take safety seriously, and tackle the much talked about infrastructure bill. For someone who has taken this personally for a long time, I’d say it’s long overdue.

Jim Mathews is president of the Rail Passengers Association, the oldest and largest national membership organization fighting for more and better trains in America.