The deadly unraveling of train travel in America

Crews assess the wreckage after an Amtrak passenger train slammed into a freight train in South Carolina on Sunday. (Photo: Getty Images)

In the world of travel, trains have long been lauded as a safer alternative to cars or buses, and a more affordable one than airplanes. As recently as 2015, the National Safety Council (NSC) called accidents on the rails “rare.” But with the recent spike in train accidents — including four fatal crashes in the last two months alone — train travel’s image as a secure, cost-effective method of transportation is waning.

Until changes are made to the safety protocol, this might be for the best. Unbeknownst to the public, Congress passed a law in 2008 mandating that trains use a specific billion-dollar GPS technology called “positive train control” (PTC), which is specifically designed to prevent crashes. Almost 10 years later, it’s yet to be adopted by Amtrak or other major train providers.

The technology could have stopped the most recent accident, which occurred just after 2:30 a.m. Sunday when a Miami-bound train derailed onto a different track, slamming into a freight train that was parked there. The accident left two Amtrak workers dead and more than 100 people injured, with multiple passengers telling reporters that the jolt was so intense they feared for their own life.

It also likely would have prevented the crash four days earlier, in which a train transporting 300 passengers collided with a garbage truck in Virginia, killing one and injuring several. That train was carrying a group of Republican lawmakers who were heading to a retreat in West Virginia, many of whom were accompanied by children. House Speaker Paul Ryan, one of those onboard, called the incident a “terrible tragedy.”

In an even more serious crash mid-December, an Amtrak train debuting a new route from Tacoma, Wash., to Portland, Ore., derailed near Seattle, killing three passengers and injuring 62 others. Officials later revealed that the train was traveling 80 mph, double the speed limit. An engineer said this was the result of “misjudg[ing] the train’s location.” The least talked about crash of the four, happened earlier this January, when a pastor and his wife were killed after their SUV collided with an Amtrak train in North Carolina.

Speaking with reporters late Sunday, Rich Kempf, the brother of one of the Amtrak workers killed in Sunday’s crash, 54-year-old Michael Kempf, told the New York Daily News that his brother had expressed concerns about his physical safety on the job. “[We] always talked about this … something happening,” Michael’s brother, Rich Kempf, told the news organization. “He was voicing concerns about getting killed.”

It’s crashes like the one that killed Kempf’s brother that the PTC technology is designed to prevent. The mandate to incorporate the technology was wrapped into the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008. It was passed by Congress in October of that year, one month after a Metrolink train pummeled into a Union Pacific freight in Chatsworth, Calif., killing 25 people and injuring 135 more.

An amendment to Title 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations, its stated objective is to “prevent railroad fatalities, injuries, and hazardous materials releases.” How? By requiring all trains that either carry hazardous materials or transport passengers intercity implement the technology by 2015. 

It was a great plan — but one that didn’t work. By September of 2015, most trains had failed to implement the technology, claiming it was too burdensome and costly. At the time, Amtrak released a statement warning Congress that if it continued to uphold the deadline, the railway giant would have to shut down operations. In response, the House and Senate agreed to extend the deadline for implementing PTC to Dec. 31, 2018, with the possibility of extending it to Dec. 31, 2020, if necessary.

The move infuriated lawmakers, who said it was too dangerous to delay. “This five-year extension of lifesaving technology is way too long, with way too little guarantee that P.T.C. implementation will get done,” Sen. Richard BlumenthalD-Conn., an advocate of train safety measures, reportedly said in a statement at the time.

The Association of American Railroads (AAR) confirms on its website that the “sophisticated” technology of PTC is capable of automatically stopping a train before a collision by monitoring the train’s position and speed, and activating braking when necessary. In addition to tracking the train’s own individual expedition, the PTC system can connect the train to the entire “storehouse for all information related to the rail network and all trains operating across it.”

According to AAR, this could prevent four types of crashes that result from human error: “train-to-train collisions, derailments caused by excessive speed, unauthorized train movement onto sections of track where maintenance activities are taking place, and movement of a train through a track switch left in the wrong position.”

As accidents like Sunday’s continue to mount, experts point to the high cost of PTC as the reason for its delay. In a CityLab report from 2013, writer Eric Jaffe showed estimates that implementing it could cost the railway companies anywhere from $6 billion to $22 billion.

That, combined with the logistical nightmare of incorporating a new technology on active trains, has likely landed us where we are today — a dangerous predicament, one that experts say has nearly reached “epidemic” proportions.

Still, while it’s important to take a closer look at the rise of train accidents nationwide, its focus shouldn’t eclipse important conversations about other types of travel. Car accidents are still a leading cause of death in America, resulting in more than 32,000 deaths and 2 million injuries each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Air travel, on the contrary, continues to get safer. Last year, the Aviation Safety Network recorded zero deaths from large commercial jets, making 2017 the safest year in the skies on record. All of this should be a signal to the train world, that the time to ensure passenger safety is now.

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