Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter confirmed eight deaths as a result of the derailment of Amtrak train 188 on May 12. Crash clean up has closed Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, the railroad’s busiest, entirely. At this time, the exact reason for this Amtrak accident is unknown.
A likely candidate is simply traveling too fast. The train was traveling at over 100 miles per hour. The speed limit on that especially curvy portion of track. is only 50. It is unusual for a person in a car to be ticketed going at twice the legal speed limit, much less someone responsible for the welfare of a multiple ton passenger train. The brakes were applied, but only managed to slow the train down by a couple miles before it crashed.
While it is true that in many countries trains travel regularly at twice that speed, a major difference is that transportation infrastructure in such countries is much better maintained than America’s at the moment. While the news that the country needs to devote more funds to ensuring safety on these highly utilized transit ways is hardly new, the problem just seems to have increased in recent years. Local, state, and national governments spend less than they once did on infrastructure. In fact, spending is currently at its lowest level in 22 years.
Lawrence Summers, Treasury secretary during the Clinton administration, past Harvard University president and current Harvard professor wonders why America is not addressing this growing problem. He argues that a major investment in infrastructure will decrease accidents, reduce maintenance costs over time, raise the GDP, and get construction workers back to work. Given that current interest rates are low, Summers feels that this project should be embarked upon immediately. Other Democrats may be making the same argument in all levels of government across the country today. However, their Republican counterparts do not seem to support infrastructure spending of late, though they have in the past.
A possible, though still unproven reason for this Amtrak accident, may be that the section of track on which the crash occurred was not equipped with the latest safety system, the positive train control (PTC) system would have sensed how fast the train was moving. Then it would have alerted the crew. If the crew did not respond, it would have applied the brakes itself. All railroad tracks are required to be running PTC by the end of the year. This section of the corridor simply had not been updated yet.
Michael Callanan, an Amtrak co-worker who helped train the conductor of train 188 five years ago supplies yet another reason for the incident. He speculates that an outside force, such as thrown rocks contributed to it. He mentioned that perhaps the conductor had his hand on the throttle when he was startled by noise created when rocks impacted the train, “You name it, I’ve seen it. Baltimore, we’ve had children stoning the train. That particular area, North Philly, is a bad area,” he said.
Amtrak officials plan to review tapes to ensure that distracted driving played no part in the derailment. For all the research this Amtrak crash is sure to generate, the exact cause may never be known. It may not have even been caused by only one reason, perhaps a myriad of factors contributed. The incident may have been caused by an error no one even realizes, it is something that can happen, which would mean more crashes have to occur before it even gets figured out. All that can be done now is to try to prevent as many future accidents as possible. It does not matter whether this is achieved through reinforcing weakening infrastructures, greater safety precaution, more reliance on automated systems, or increased crew training. Amtrak and the nation must grow and learn from this tragedy so that all parties may move forward.
New York Times-Amtrak Crash and America’s Declining Construction Spending
NBC 10: Amtrak ‘Positive Train Control’ Safety System Was Not Yet Installed at Crash Site
ABC News- Conductor suggests ‘outside force’ is likely cause of Amtrak 188 train crash in Philadelphia
Photo Courtesy Flickr By Bill Dickinson – Creative Commons License