The recent Amtrak train accident that took eight lives and injured 200 was not the first such tragedy in the annals of railroad history – nor was it the worst. On the night of August 13, 1939, the Union Pacific streamliner City of Francisco plunged off of a bridge over the Humboldt River in the Nevada desert, killing more than twenty of the 220 passengers aboard.
The difference is that the crash of seventy-six years ago was a clear case of sabotage, undertaken with the willful intention of causing death and mayhem. The recent crash in Philadelphia of Amtrak's Northwest Regional Train has been ruled an accident as of this time, although it is still unclear as to whether it was operator error or equipment failure (reports state that the train was traveling over 100 miles per hour in a 50 mile per hour zone). And of course there always is the possibility that intentional harm could eventually be discovered.
One thing is certain, however; it was avoidable. Unlike 1939, technology exists today that could have slowed the train remotely, operate turnouts that have been incorrectly set, override locomotive controls in case of human error, and stop trains altogether in cases of hijacking, washouts or other potential disasters. In fact, this technology has been available for many years. The National Transportation Safety Board has been urging the railroad industry to implement this technology, known as “Positive Train Control” (PTC).
In October 2008, the 110th Congress passed Public Law 110-432, in order to “amend Title 49, United States Code, to prevent railroad fatalities, injuries and hazardous materials releases, to authorize the Federal Railroad Safety Administration, and for other purposes.” It is more commonly known as the Rail Safety Act of 2008. Under the terms of this legislation, all major railway carriers are required to have this technology installed no later than December of 2015.
Unlike nearly all other railroads, Amtrak – officially known as the National Railroad Passenger Corporation – is a partially publicly-funded entity. Prior to 1970, virtually all private railroads provided passenger service. Some trains, such as Union Pacific's City of San Francisco, Santa Fe's Super Chief, and New York Central's Twentieth Century Limited were luxurious and artistic in appearance, as well as rightfully famous. Despite this, by the 1960s, passenger rail service was losing millions of dollars as passengers turned to private automobiles and air travel, and U.S. Postal Service contracts dried up.
Amtrak was born in 1970 when President Richard Nixon signed the Rail Passenger Act in order to assure the continuation of inter-city rail travel, particularly in the East where many daily commuters still relied on train travel. Conservatives considered this a “politically expedient” way to slowly allow rail passenger service to die out, while liberals hoped that eventually Amtrak would become self-sufficient. As it has turned out, rail travel remains popular enough to justify Amtrak's existence – yet it continues to require public funding.
Therein lies the problem for the right-leaning elements who have dominated the legislature for over a decade and stand against public funding of anything but the defense industry. It should come as little surprise that Amtrak has continued to get short-shrift when it comes to funding. Although the railroad has done its best to implement speed control technology throughout its system, a significant part of the Northeast Corridor has no such technology – including the site of May's tragic and unnecessary accident.
In the wake of this tragedy, the Republican-controlled House Appropriation Committee has voted to cut Amtrak funding by another 20%. In March, Republican Senator Roy Blount of Missouri introduced legislation that would extend the deadline for implementing PTC technology by another five years. At the time, he issued a press release stating that “unmanageable deadlines could result in higher costs and a disruption of service.”
Sadly, but not unexpectedly, legislators like Senator Blount only count the costs in financial terms. Families and loved ones of those killed an injured would count those costs and disruptions another way.
To find out more about railroad safety, visit Levin Papantonio Railroad Safety Lawsuit web page.