Neglected US transit system — This is why we can’t have nice things

Amtrak train crash transit rail
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Amtrak train crash transit rail Philadelphia

In 2015, a tragic derailment of an Amtrak train in Philadelphia killed eight people and injured 200. In the immediate aftermath of the horrific crash, as in all such cases, people wanted to know who or what was to blame and how to avoid future crashes.

I advocated for some of the victims and families in that tragedy, so it was personally concerning to me as well as to millions of others who depend on regional rail and transit networks.

{mosads}The initial belief was that a distracted engineer was responsible. Further investigation, however, carried out by government teams and other experts revealed that the activation of a computerized speed-limiting system had been delayed, partially due to constraints in the federal budget. Additionally, an older speed-control device had fallen into disrepair before a modern computerized replacement could be installed.


The train engineer was charged with eight counts of manslaughter but was eventually cleared of all charges. This loss of life, ultimately, was the result of an underfunded, aging and ill-maintained transit safety system.

It has become a tragically familiar story across our nation: Lives lost or severely impacted because vital infrastructure has not been maintained and modernized at the level needed. Whether it is a bridge in Minnesota or a water system in Flint, Michigan, the common theme is the need to take action or responsibility before it is too late. 

We simply must not be at the mercy of the reliability of infrastructure envisioned or built nearly a century or more ago by past visionaries like Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. The economic impact of public transit systems to cities and the nation as a whole are tremendous and far too often overlooked.

According to a 2014 study by the American Public Transportation Association, large U.S. cities that invest $1 billion into their public transportation systems could see a multiplier effect return of $3.7 billion annually in additional GDP. That is a nearly four-fold return on investment that continues to pay transit system users back year after year. That is money well spent.

The study finds value comes from the fact that a functioning and smooth-running transportation system invites more people to buy property and settle into an urban area. The more people concentrated in a specific area, the more companies will move there and the more well-paying jobs will be created.

Even those not living within city limits benefit because it enables them to travel into metropolitan areas for better-paying jobs. Municipalities and states will benefit in turn from increased tax bases.

 As a veteran advocate for a wide range of transit victims, I have first-hand access to both federal and independent safety reports. What is exceptionally clear is that many of these accidents were preventable. While maintenance in today’s dollars can be costly, the price of inaction is far greater in terms of both money and lives. 

Last summer, large parts of the Washington, D.C. Metro were shut down to repair a decade’s worth of maintenance neglect, forcing commuters to telecommute or get by with only half the scheduled trains the system regularly depends on. While certainly inconvenient, it was a necessary evil. Had routine maintenance been more of a priority over the preceding decades, the fix might not have been as disruptive.

In contrast, this June, 34 passengers were injured when a New York City subway train was derailed by an improperly secured piece of spare rail. The spare rail was left unsecured the night before by a crew rushed to make multiple repairs during off-peak hours. The total cost of the accident has yet to be determined, but first consider the impact by paralyzing that subway line for nearly three days.

The American Society of Civil Engineers awarded the United States a D+ overall grade in its 2017 Infrastructure Report Card and even going so far as to give the nation’s public transit infrastructure a D- grade.

This summer, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut commuters are experiencing what New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has labeled the ‘Summer of Hell,’ as aging infrastructure at Pennsylvania Station causes delays and detours for millions of people. While Penn Station was built to accommodate 200,000 daily commuters, daily traffic now exceeds 700,000. Following years of delays and breakdowns, Amtrak, which owns Penn Station, began repair work on outdated tracks and switches.

America’s transit infrastructure systems need to be properly maintained and the federal government must join with our states and cities to recognize its responsibility to ensure this happens.

Michael Barasch is an attorney and managing partner at Barasch McGarry Salzman & Penson. His law firm has over 36 years of experience advocating for the rights of first responders and public transit accident victims. 

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Amtrak Commuter rail Commuting crash New York City Subway Northeast Regional Pennsylvania Station Public transport rail Rail transport by country Rail transportation in the United States Train transit Transportation Transportation in the United States

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