A holistic look at U.S. infrastructure

When the Apollo 1 fire in 1967 killed three American astronauts, it was a terrible national tragedy. But just two years later, during the Apollo 11 mission, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. That is what we do with tragedies: We learn from them and work to ensure they don't happen again.

That is the spirit we must take with the tragic crash of Amtrak 188 that killed eight people and injured 200 others near Philadelphia. It is too early to know precisely what caused the derailment and inappropriate to speculate; a final report will ultimately provide the details.


But the crash should make us take a step back and look at whether we've done enough to ensure the safety of our nation's transportation system. As a nation, we increasingly rely on our infrastructure to conduct business and connect. And there are no more heavily used tracks than the Northeast corridor that connects Boston through New York City, Philadelphia and Baltimore to Washington.

Modernizing that 453-mile stretch of tracks should be a national priority. Over the last decade the corridor has been beset by breakdowns and troubles stemming from outdated tracks and power systems. That corridor shepherds over 11 million passengers a year and is vital to commerce on the East Coast — from then-Sen. Joe Biden's daily commute from Delaware to Washington, D.C., to weekly riders traveling between Boston and New York City.


In 2012 Amtrak itself found that the "aging and congested" Northeast corridor was heading toward a crisis and proposed an ambitious program to modernize it. But ambitious plans weren't enough; Congress failed to fund the upgrades and modernization.

Here's a prime example: Technology that slows or stops a train automatically — called Positive Train Control — was supposed to be installed throughout the nation's railroad system by the end of this year, but that deadline will be missed. Some experts have testified that it could have prevented the Philadelphia crash had this heavily used section of track been prioritized for implementation.

Congress has a troubled relationship with Amtrak: It leans on it to be less costly, yet criticizes it when accidents or breakdowns occur due to funding shortages. Ultimately, we can't have it both ways; we need to give Amtrak the resources it needs, especially in the Northeast Corridor, to modernize and improve safety.

But the Northeast Corridor is only part of the puzzle of our nation's transportation system. Eight years ago a horrific bridge collapse in Minneapolis that killed 13 people and injured 145 others put a spotlight on bridge safety. We need to take a holistic look at our nation's transportation infrastructure — airports, rail and bus systems — to determine whether they are ready for the continued increase in travel.

And it is coming. The Global Business Travel Association's annual index forecasts that by 2016 spending on travel will have increased by 50 percent over the last decade. As a society, time and distance are becoming less critical, and more jobs are dependent on travel to a neighboring state or even overseas. We have to ensure that the nation's infrastructure is up to the modern travel challenges of the 21st Century.

Given the importance of business travel to the health of our economy, this is a "must-do" priority for our nation's future. This includes modernizing our railway system to make it faster and safer, upgrading our air traffic control system and supporting safe and reliable ground transportation.

In the coming months we'll get the full details of what happened with Amtrak 188. And just like we have in the past, we'll learn from those mistakes. But to really make a difference, we must do more than learn; we must apply those lessons to our nation's transportation system so we have fewer tragedies and better systems — and let's start with the Northeast corridor.

Michael W. McCormick is the executive director and COO of the Global Business Travel Association. Twitter: mikemccdc.