Last week's horrific Amtrak crash surfaced new concerns about the US's neglect of its rail infrastructure, with blame falling on Congress for failing to allocate enough money to upgrade the system for safety. The truth is that trains would be the safest way to travel in this country — if more Americans embraced a future on rails.
When Amtrak Northeast Regional 188 derailed, killing eight people, many analysts speculated that the crash likely could have been prevented by Positive Train Control, a location-based monitoring system that can limit a train's speed based on where it is on the track. Most reports centered in on what was deemed a tragic twist: The train was outfitted with the technology and it would have been operational in a few months — but a lack of funding was delaying it.
The day after the crash, Congress actually voted to cut even more of Amtrak's budget.
Yesterday, the New York Times reported that the US devotes so little to train improvements that it may be affecting overall passenger safety. Our per capita spending on rail is much less than most nations — far behind all of Europe and Japan, but also behind countries like India and Russia. China has built a high-speed rail empire in the last decade that includes the world's longest route as well as projects in other countries.
The US's system is absolutely antiquated compared to almost any other country. Here's the most damning passage:
Japan's famous Shinkansen "bullet train" network has never experienced a fatal crash or derailment in 51 years of operation, while in France the same can be said of its gleaming fleet of high-speed TGVs, which have zipped across the French countryside for close to three decades.
Pinning blame for a fatal crash on Congress for enabling this specific budgetary shortfall doesn't help aid the investigation or fix the poor emergency response, as this firsthand account of a disaster relief worker who was on the train eloquently argues. But it does point to a larger issue. Of course certain politicians won't vote for improvements for trains. Their constituents don't ride them.
A Rail-Less Future
In October, Amtrak had posted a record high ridership for fiscal 2014: Last year it counted 30 million boardings. While Amtrak's routes cover nearly the entire country, 11 million boardings were just on the Northeast Corridor, the route between DC and Boston.
This map from Vox that shows stations by overall Amtrak ridership tells you everything you need to know about who is riding the trains in this country: A third of all Amtrak rides originate in the cities of New York, DC, and Philadelphia.
For the rest of the country, better rail infrastructure is not a financial priority. In fact, it's become positioned as an unnecessary extravagance. You hear a certain word repeated over and over in news stories: High-speed rail is a boondoggle.
The tale of attempting to improve our rail infrastructure has become almost comically predictable. States put together a high speed rail proposal. Funds are promised. Then the plan is smashed in a highly politicized battle. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker vowed to "kill" a high-speed rail plan — even though the federal funding was already allocated. Governors swatted similar plans in Ohio and Florida. Whether it's the fault of voters or short-sighted politicians, we just can't envision our high-speed rail fate.
Many of the routes proposed by the Obama administration's $US8 billion investment in high speed rail projects as part of the Recovery Act in 2009 have already been denied
Winning Hearts and Minds
There is no doubt that public opinion has to change. The country needs to start electing people who are serious about investing in improvements that make our trains safer. At the same time, those improvements will not be made if there is a rising fear that trains are dangerous.
I don't know how to fix this. When I look at the proposals for US rail projects, I see a lot of apathy. None of the high-speed rail visions proposed for the country have intrigued Americans enough to entice them — at least emotionally — from their cars and planes. OK, maybe the Hyperloop? And in that sense, maybe privatised train travel is really the only way to go.
Take California's high speed rail proposal. Yes, voters did approve a $US10 billion bond measure that would help finance the system. The stations are already being built; some of them have already become striking landmarks in our cities. But the train itself isn't any kind of technological game-changer — in fact, it's almost like an afterthought, when it should be the centrepiece. Where is our glorious US-designed bullet train that can catapult the country ahead?
This is the future? Where is our bullet train?
Japan's maglev train broke its speed record at 366 mph earlier this year. Although the specific rolling stock hasn't been selected yet for CHSR, we know the specs: California's train will top out at 220 mph and run on wheels. That's only a slight improvement to the trains we have now. What was most shocking to the rest of the world about last week's crash wasn't that a train was travelling over 100 mph on a curve that was designed for half the speed. It's that most of our trains aren't actually designed to go that fast at all.
If the goal is to make more Americans safer when they travel, the US has got to change its priorities. 250 people died in train crashes last year in the US, a number that should absolutely be zero. Our trains certainly need a safety upgrade, but overall, trains are statistically a much, much safer transportation method when compared to motorised vehicles. Yet GM gets a government bailout and Amtrak gets its funding slashed.
Instead of investing in better train technology, which could easily make rail the safest way to travel in the US, we've spent the past half-century pumping billions of dollars into our interstate highway system — where cars kill 32,000 people each year.
AP Photo/Michael R. Sisak