Reliable Amtrak service can turn deadly — when underfunded

Reliable Amtrak service can turn deadly — when underfunded
© Twitter/Rep. Greg Walden

The recent rash of Amtrak related accidents and incidents capturing media attention has left the American public wondering about the safety and cost of this government subsidized commuter rail system.

Is it worth it? Yes — despite the occasional headline-grabbing crash, Amtrak has a track record of reliability, especially when considering the long history of underfunding the rail system.

In the 1950s and well into the 1960s railroad passenger trains lost money. The over-regulated railroads themselves were struggling to stay solvent. A number filed bankruptcy. Up to that time, U.S. Mail contracts had largely helped subsidize the cost of running passenger trains — then that funding disappeared.

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In the face of the new federally funded intrastate highway system, cheap gas and growing airlines (think federally funded airports and air traffic control system) people abandoned passenger trains in droves. The railroads themselves encouraged this exodus by reducing service where ever they could to minimize patronage. Losses eventually justified finally dropping the service by the Interstate Commerce Commission.

 

Congress created the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, aka Amtrak, in 1971, relieving the railroads of the passenger train financial burden while still responding to the public demand for train travel, particularly in the populous Northeast.

When created, many politicians and corporate executives thought that Amtrak would be gone within five years, dead of apathy. But train travel wasn’t ready to die. Since its inception, Amtrak ridership has roughly doubled and continues to grow making it a politically hard to kill. However, Amtrak has been on a life support budget for almost all of its existence and an easy target for cuts under the guise of “saving money.”

There are few, if any, self-supporting passenger transport modes in modern society. Everything is subsidized in one form or another by local, state or the federal government, whether it is airports, passenger trains or highways. Nobody wants or will pay the true cost to ride out of their own pocket. Consequently, government has a “say” in whatever it helps fund. Amtrak is no different. Amtrak is dependent on state and congressional funding. Amtrak’s eight-member board and chairman are presidential appointees confirmed by the Senate for five-year terms.

Therefore, unlike a private corporation, Amtrak is much more susceptible to political interference in train routing choices, selection of managers, etc. Such government political interference burdens Amtrak financially and operationally.

Add to this the Amtrak burden of using someone else’s railroad. Outside the Amtrak-owned Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston, Amtrak runs on the freight-owned railroads, which are responsible for about 63 percent of all Amtrak delays. It’s hard to sell reliable service when the freight lines see you as a government-mandated interloper who competes for valuable track time.

Despite all these obstacles, Amtrak is efficient and reliable. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, on average, Amtrak collects over twice the revenue per-passenger-mile of commercial airlines, and is 30 percent to 40 percent more fuel energy efficient per passenger mile than commercial airlines or automobiles. Amtrak is on-time an average of 83 percent of the time compared to commercial airlines 81.9 percent of the time.

Amtrak is also very safe compared with other modes of transportation. You are 16 times more likely to die in an automobile than on Amtrak, and twice as likely to die on a transit bus than on Amtrak. A large part of this, besides safe operation, is that Amtrak passenger cars are extremely strong vehicles. Federal requirements for rail passenger car strength and resilience are some of the toughest, if not the toughest, in the world.

Amtrak Acela trains are 45 percent heavier than the much faster French TGV trains. Acela has more steel and stronger construction for crashworthiness. The highest number of Amtrak fatalities occurred in 1993 when a barge struck and displaced a railroad bridge in the fog at Big Bayou Canot just north of Mobile, Alabama killing nearly 50 onboard mostly due to drowning not impact or blunt trauma. Amtrak was a “victim” of that accident much like two other recent accidents.

Generally, trains cannot stop within the engineer’s sight distance, even relatively quick stopping passenger trains. I believe that the recent Amtrak train carrying Republican member of congress when it hit a garbage truck at a grade crossing in West Virginia was the fault of the garbage truck driver. The crossing was protected by flashing signals requiring the truck to stop. As is often the case, the truck probably tried to “beat the train.” The Amtrak locomotive video should confirm this assertion. 

The latest Amtrak collision with a CSX freight train near Cayce, South Carolina is another case in point. A switch was left misaligned and Amtrak ran into the parked freight locomotive before it could stop killing the two Amtrak head-end crew in locomotive cab. However, there were no fatalities among the passengers although some were injured. Again, Amtrak was “the victim.” Ironically that accident occurred during the installation process of “positive train control” (PTC), which is designed to prevent just such accidents, and in part, is justified for the additional safety of passenger train operations.

However, two other relatively recent accidents are attributable to Amtrak and both involved overspeed in curves. The latest near Dupont, Washington was an inaugural regional Cascades service rail train between Portland and Seattle. Amtrak was the contractor to run and maintain the trains. Apparently, an instructing engineer and a qualifying engineer lost track of their location along the route and derailed the train in a speed restricted 30 mph curve while going 79 mph. 

The engineers were lucky to survive, and knew that they had the greatest chance to die in the event of a collision or derailment wreck. I believe that the root cause of this accident and eventually a report will show inadequate crew training prior to initiating the service.

Finally, the yet to be fully explained overspeed derailment and wreck of Amtrak Train 188 in May 2015 in a curve just north of Philadelphia is an Amtrak management root cause. Had Amtrak installed their ACES system (Amtrak version of PTC) on the accident curve as they had throughout the rest of the Northeast Corridor, the accident would not have occurred regardless of the engineer’s actions.

But how much, if any, of the decision to delay installation of a speed protecting system on the curve was due to funding or other reasons has not yet been revealed? Amtrak is, for the most part, a reliable, efficient and relatively safe means of travel. Given adequate funding, it will remain so and even get better.

Russell G. Quimby is a railroad and rapid transit accident consultant and expert witness. Quimby previously worked as a National Transportation Safety Board safety engineer for more than 20 years, investigating transit accidents to determine probable cause and proposed safety recommendations.