Amtrak's had a particularly bad couple of months and it's been interesting to watch the anti-train zealots spin their stories.
Of the most recent three incidents -- the crash of the Cascade line passenger train that killed three near Tacoma, Washington, the crash with the garbage truck in West Virginia while carrying congressional Republicans to a retreat, and the crash with a freight train parked on a siding in South Carolina -- only the Tacoma accident can be blamed on Amtrak itself.
Somehow there are those who believe that a passenger train can avoid a vehicle that's run a crossing -- something that happens with unbelievable regularity, including attempts at suicide, around the country. The only difference with this one in West Virgina was that the train carried high-profile politicians and generated an immense amount of publicity.
Meanwhile, there wasn't anything that Amtrak could have done when the railroad in charge of operating the switches in South Carolina wound up sending the passenger train onto the siding where it would strike the freight. The crew members in the engine didn't have a chance.
But that's quibbling. Frankly, there shouldn't be any crashes or deaths on the nation's railroads in these times. The technology exists to drastically reduce accidents like we've witnessed, if not eliminate them altogether. Yet, we as a nation continue to drag our feet on fixing these problems.
Unlike the air industry, where government generously funds air traffic control and helps pay for safety upgrades and support technology, the nation's rail system is left mostly on its own to pay the billions needed to install what is known as "positive train control," a GPS system that can automatically slow down trains traveling too fast and even stop them if a collision is imminent.
It would cost roughly $12 billion to implement PTC nationwide, but so far Congress has allocated just $1.2 billion to help smaller operators pay to install it. The larger railroads, on whose tracks Amtrak typically operates, are expected to pay for the system themselves, but because there has never been a comprehensive plan to install the system, its a hodge podge that keeps getting delayed over money woes and jurisdictional disputes.
The time has come for everyone to get their act together. Some 40 people have paid with their lives since 2008 in crashes that could have been avoided if PTC had been installed on schedule.
Record numbers of passengers are using rail these days and it's time for the government, through the Department of Transportation and the Federal Railway Agency, and the major railroad corporations to get their act together.
This isn't an Amtrak problem, it's a problem for all of us.
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @DaveZweifel. Zweifel is the co-author, along with John Nichols, of the new book "The Capital Times: A Proudly Radical Newspaper's Century Long Fight for Justice and Peace," published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. It's available on the Historical Society Press website, and at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
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