Thursday, May 14, 2015

Amtrak: Reckless Engineers and Politicians

The debate about the state of Amtrak is like the one about the state of cities kicked into overdrive by calamity and disaster. Naturally, that is no way to operate, but sadly enough, only the spotlight on the decrepit state of affairs will bring the type of change that is needed. That is where we are in the US with our ideological stalemate in Congress.

So it is that Congressman Andrew Harris can ask with a straight face (as much as one can see it on radio) "do we really need all those passenger railroads" in the US. Really? It would be nice if these folks would look around the world a bit and check out some cities in other countries and while they are there use transit and trains. They will see that we are one the the very few"developed" countries in the world that doesn't have high speed rail or a solid nationwide rail system.

Of course, the Spanish train engineer that sent a train flying in northwest Spain in 2013 may have had a twin here and neither system did a positive train control system prevent the human error. The Spanish disaster had more than ten times the fatalities but the parallels are eerie, in any case:

The Spanish train crash of 2013

 Asked why he had exceeded the speed limit, Mr. Garzón told the magistrate’s court in Santiago de Compostela, where the accident occurred: “I have no explanation, I don’t understand how I didn’t see it. I should have known that at that point that I had to drive at 80 kilometers [50 miles] per hour.” He added: “The aftereffects of what happened are enormous and will stay with me for the rest of my life.”
Data from two black boxes retrieved from the mangled wreck showed that the train had been traveling as fast as 119 miles per hour just minutes before the crash on a section of the track where the speed limit is 50 m.p.h.
The Alvia 151 train was carrying 218 passengers when it derailed on a turn on July 24 near Santiago de Compostela, in northwestern Spain. The train careered off the rails before slamming into a concrete wall. Some of its cars caught fire. Most of the victims were Spanish, although there were passengers from Algeria, the Dominican Republic, Italy, Mexico and the United States.
Mr. Garzón told prosecutors that when he reached the turn, he realized almost immediately that he had made a lethal error, according to the report in El País. “In the curve I realized, I realized that I won’t make it, I won’t make it,” he said, adding that he had activated the brake. (New York Times, 7-31-13)
So maybe the crash does not teach us a bigger lesson. But violence in Baltimore and the sharp curve in Philly both show that the politicians who starve public coffers and prevent government from maintaining and updating infrastructure, amenities and essentials for the citizens of this country in the name of a misguided ideology are just as reckless as the speeding engineer in Spain.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
Yet the issue isn’t that the industry needs a little more time; the problem is that rail needs a lot more money. The Obama administration’s transportation budget for fiscal year 2016 includes $3 billion over six yearsto assist with implementing PTC, but the House voted on Wednesday—the day after the crash—to slash Amtrak’s budget.
CityLab: How Congress Failed to Prevent the Deadly Amtrak Crash

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