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Lessons from the Amtrak crash

What happens when the U.S. fails to invest enough money in transportation? Amtrak crash offers a reminder.

If you wanted to illustrate the dysfunctional relationship between Congress and Amtrak, you could scarcely have devised a more compelling scenario. First, a catastrophic derailment north of Philadelphia last Tuesday night that killed at least eight and seriously injured several dozen more and then, within a matter of hours, a House committee votes against higher Amtrak funding. The accident might have been avoided entirely if the passenger rail system had the resources to install positive train control over the entire Northeast Corridor, a technology that would have automatically prevented the train from going 106 miles per hour on a curve limited to 50 mph.

Might these circumstances have been predicted? How could they not? In 2008 on this very page and in the wake of a collision between a commuter and a freight train in northern Los Angeles that killed 25 people, we applauded Congress for mandating positive train control but warned that lawmakers needed to be prepared for its multi-billion-dollar cost. "This seems lost on Washington, which despite neglecting the nation's railroads for decades can somehow be surprised by the system's shortcomings," this newspaper editorialized seven years ago.

But here's the real problem: Washington is perhaps even more bone-headed about all other forms of transportation than it is about Amtrak. By any reasonable assessment, passenger rail remains one of the nation's safest forms of transportation. In a typical year, there are between three and six rail passengers killed in the U.S., according to the Federal Railroad Administration. It's far more likely that a person will die because they steered their car into a train (247 deaths at railroad crossings last year) than in a train derailment. Even with the Philadelphia crash, it's possible that the bigger worry is that shutting down Amtrak service between Philadelphia and New York will cause more people to drive, which is far more dangerous than any form of rail service (33,561 motor vehicle fatalities in 2012, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration). When measured against the total vehicle miles traveled, a person is at least 14 times more likely to die in a car, motorcycle or truck wreck than on board a long-haul train.

And just as Congress has short-changed Amtrak on positive train control, they've failed to keep up with the nation's highway and bridge safety needs as well. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that it would cost at least $76 billion to repair thousands of deficient U.S. bridges. There are at least 182,000 miles of highways classified as being in poor or mediocre condition by the Federal Highway Administration. Experts say the U.S. needs to spend at least $96 billion annually, or more than twice what it allocates for surface transportation each year, to keep up. Yet Congress hasn't passed a six-year transportation authorization since 2009 and is facing a May 31 deadline to keep the federal program afloat. The problem? Too many are scared to raise the gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon, a rate that hasn't been touched since the Bill Clinton era even as gasoline prices have more than doubled since 1993.

Such chronic neglect — and it's hard to call it anything else given how the U.S. lags much of the world in how much is spent on basic infrastructure when measured as a percentage of its economic output — means the next generation will pay a considerable price. Not just in congestion, loss of productivity, higher fuel consumption, more vehicle repairs from bad roads and on and on, but in basic safety. Events like the collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis in 2007 are likely to become far more commonplace if these trends continue. It won't require a train operator to ignore the speed limits for such disasters to strike — only further decay and disrepair.

In this respect, the Amtrak crash was caused by factors beyond one operator's inexplicable behavior (his attorney claims he has no memory of the accident) or even the failure to install positive train control over much of the system but by America's failure to allocate a sufficient money for the basic but vitally important task of getting people to where they need to be on a daily basis. Roads, bridges, rail systems and the rest require replacement, repair or expansion, or they fall apart — and the U.S. economy falls apart along with them.

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