Japan’s high-speed bullet train system carries 1 million riders every day and has a remarkable safety record, at least compared to passenger trains in the United States. Passengers have taken billions of rides on Japanese bullet trains since the system was established 50 years ago, but not one passenger has died due to a derailment or collision.
In the US commuters and travelers use trains less than the Japanese, but US passenger train lines have suffered five major wrecks that killed or injured passengers over the past decade, including the recent derailment of an Amtrak passenger train that killed three people and injured more than 50 others in DuPont, Washington on December 18. Among the dead were two active members of the Rail Passengers Association, a group that pushes for greater access to passenger rail services.
A “constellation of factors” contributed to this spate of deadly train accidents, including train companies’ habit of cutting corners to save money and a national failure to fund railroad and transportation infrastructure, according to Railroad Workers United, a national union representing railroad workers.
President Trump has used the DuPont crash to tout an infrastructure proposal due out later this month. However, critics say Trump’s plan would leave struggling state and local government on the hook for repairing crumbling roads, bridges and railroads as Congress looks for ways to pay for the GOP tax cut package that Trump signed into law last month.
US Railroads — Underfunded and Unsafe
Railroads around the world have made significant advances in safety, efficiency and infrastructure over the past century, and passengers in Japan, Europe and beyond enjoy affordable, high-speed transportation between many major cities. This is not the case in the US, where high-speed rail service is limited in most parts of the country. Most US railroads still operate on gradients laid in the 19th century that are “full of curvature, steep grades and other impediments to safe and efficient operation,” according to Railroad Workers United.
“When upgrades are made, they are often inadequately funded, leading to unsafe conditions for employees, passengers and those living trackside,” the union said in a collective statement released on Wednesday. “Unless and until this nation can make a commitment to advancing modern passenger train transportation through adequate and necessary funding, we will continue to lag behind the rest of the world, and continue to suffer tragedies like the one in Dupont, WA.”
The deadly derailment of Amtrak Train 501 in DuPont occurred at a sharp curve in the track that state officials have hoped to restructure as part of an effort to expand high-speed rail to the Seattle region, according to The Seattle Times. However, adequate funding for rail infrastructure projects has not surfaced in Washington State, and the Times recently called the curve “a symbol of unsteady political support in the United States for rapid-rail infrastructure.”
“The tragedy in Washington State highlights what everyone already knows, that so much of America’s infrastructure is teetering on the edge of disaster,” said Donald Cohen, director of the public services policy group In the Public Interest, in an email to Truthout.
The government’s investigation of the accident is ongoing, but an initial review by the National Transportation and Safety Board found that the conductor of the Amtrak train hit the curve at a much higher speed than he was supposed to. The accident occurred during the first day of higher-speed service on the line, and Amtrak workers and their unions have expressed concern that operators were not properly trained during nighttime trial runs prior to the change.
John Risch, the legislative director for the SMART Transportation Division, a union of engineers and train technicians, said US railroad companies “do not require training like they should” due to cost-cutting measures.
“Time and time again we have urged the railroads to allow more training trips before they go out, and they will say one or two trips is enough,” Risch said in a statement. “It’s a cost issue…. That’s something that has been a problem.”
Railroad Workers United points out that all five major train wrecks in the past decade occurred with only one trained engineer controlling the main cab of the locomotive. (There were two engineers in the cab during the DuPont crash, but only one was trained on the route, and was in the process of training the other for future runs.) The union has long advocated that two qualified engineers be present on every train, as is the case for commercial airliners, which are required to have two pilots in the cockpit.
However, train companies have pushed back on these demands, citing the costs of hiring extra workers. They have also dragged their feet on installing automated braking technology mandated by Congress after a major crash in 2008. Congress extended the deadline for installing the technology from 2015 to the end of 2018 after train operators threatened to shut down the rail system in 2015.
Railroad Workers United said the automated braking technology, known as Positive Train Control, has been around for a century and could have prevented several deadly wrecks, including the crash in DuPont. In the past, Positive Train Control protected thousands of miles of mainline train tracks, but the union said railroad companies have largely dismantled this infrastructure to save money “while government regulators turned a blind eye.”
“As rank and file railroad workers, we experience day-in-and-day-out the carriers’ cynical view of safety, the push for profit, the demand for increased stock prices, the budget cutting, the recklessness and the total disregard for workers’ lives,” the union said. “This is why Train 501 wrecked.”
All Eyes on Trump’s Infrastructure Proposal
This most recent railroad accident has renewed calls for federal investment in transportation and other infrastructure, including from President Trump, who released this tweet shortly after the DuPont crash:
The train accident that just occurred in DuPont, WA shows more than ever why our soon to be submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly. Seven trillion dollars spent in the Middle East while our roads, bridges, tunnels, railways (and more) crumble! Not for long!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 18, 2017
Of course, the Trump administration has done nothing to scale back US involvement in expensive and bloody military entanglements in the Middle East, and Trump recently authorized a massive $700 billion defense budget. In contrast, the White House’s 2018 budget proposed cutting programs that fund transportation services and infrastructure by $1.7 billion, including $630 million in cuts to Amtrak alone.
Trump campaigned on promises to rebuild crumbling roads, bridges, railroads and other infrastructure in the US, but his administration’s first attempt at rolling out an infrastructure proposal last year failed to generate any excitement in the media or Congress.
The Trump administration’s $1 trillion infrastructure blueprint released last spring only includes $200 billion in actual government spending, with the rest coming from unnamed private investors incentivized by a “mixture of loans and grants” and Trump’s deregulatory agenda. Other ideas proposed in the plan include allowing more tolls on interstate highways and opening roadside rest areas to private investment.
The White House has promised to release a more detailed infrastructure proposal by the end of January. However, it’s still a $1 trillion plan — about half of what the American Society of Civil Engineers says is needed to fix the nation’s infrastructure — and preliminary reports indicate it would still only allocate $200 billion in federal spending. The remaining $800 billion would be shifted to state and local governments, forcing them to make difficult deals with private companies.
“The hard truth is that we need nothing short of a Marshall Plan level of direct federal investment in our roads, bridges, broadband, and transit and water systems,” Cohen said. “What we know of Trump’s infrastructure plans is that he wants to do just the opposite and put more burden on city and state governments, essentially forcing them to sell off or lease our infrastructure to Wall Street and global corporations.”
Cohen and other critics say Trump should have put “America first” and rolled out a robust infrastructure funding package before signing the GOP tax bill, which gives tax breaks to the rich and adds $1.5 trillion to the federal deficit over the next 10 years. Republicans in Congress are already eyeing cuts to domestic safety net and health care programs to pay for the tax package, which largely benefits corporations and the wealthy.
Meanwhile, the deficit created by the tax package coupled with Congress’s self-imposed spending limits could force deep cuts to the trust funds that support railroad workers who are laid off or miss work due to illness, according to the SMART Transportation Division. As the rash of recent rail accidents suggests, this is a workforce that is already stretched too thin.