A short commute up the Northeast rail corridor brings the state of the nation's rail infrastructure into perspective as emergency repairs and ongoing delays have become a commonality for East Coast railway passengers. In recent weeks, the New Jersey Transit system displaced thousands of commuters for several days because of emergency repairs. In Maryland, leaks into a rail tunnel from winter soil erosion called for immediate repairs. All of these incidents are varying symptoms of one underlying problem: aging railway infrastructure in need of investment.

The Northeast Corridor serves as the busiest rail sector in the country, connecting rail lines from Washington, D.C. to Boston, Massachusetts. Ridership for the Northeast Corridor has doubled in the last 30 years and is projected to continue increasing. Currently the Northeast Corridor transports nearly 750,000 commuters each day. According to the Northeast Corridor Infrastructure and Operations Advisory Commission (NEC), the shutdown of the corridor could cost the country $100 million a day in congestion and lost productivity of commuting workers.

ADVERTISEMENT
A robust rail transportation network is essential for the flow of traffic, not just for rail passengers, but for commerce as well. Passenger trains, especially in the Northeast Corridor, serve as a primary means of transportation for many businessmen and women. Making this mode of transportation as safe as it can possibly be means ensuring the latest technological advances and best practices are implemented.

While commuter rail safety is of critical importance, freight rail introduces challenges as well. More than 550,000 carloads and intermodal units with commodities were shipped throughout one week in July alone. Goods, such as grains, metals, and hazardous materials, like crude oil, constitute a large portion of daily rail traffic. Getting these products to market is critical for the nation's economic stability.

While crude oil specifically has traditionally been shipped primarily by pipeline, oil from recently discovered fields in North Dakota and Texas, where sufficient pipeline capacity does not yet exist, are uniquely reliant on rail. More generally, the rail network's flexibility makes it an attractive mode of shipment for all commodities. Just like energy commodities are found wherever they lay, crops are harvested in areas conducive to their growth, but both are needed all over the country - the vast U.S. rail network is well suited to get these products to market.

However, it is difficult to build public support for moving the consistently increasing volumes of these commodities, especially hazardous materials, if the public does not trust that all possible precautions are in place to protect safety. Recent incidents, such as the Pennsylvania Amtrak crash, and derailments of trains carrying crude oil rattle public trust in the current state of rail safety. Strengthening the nation's rail network and improving best safety practices will go a long way to rebuild public trust.

The fist step to improving rail safety is to begin a serious dialogue on how to leverage new technologies and improve operations in an effort to eliminate all avoidable incidents. Emerging systems, such as Positive Train Control (PTC) are a great start, but there are a number of smaller steps, which when used together as part of a larger safety effort, will make rail transportation a safer mode of moving the nation's commuters and commodities well into the future.

Skelton currently serves at the executive director of the Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii), a non-profit focused on updating the nation's infrastructure. He is also a former member of the U.S. Department of Transportation's Northeast Corridor Safety Committee (NECSC).