Special Interests Use Amtrak Accident to Push for Unneeded Solutions

After a tragedy, the knee-jerk reaction is to take some action. It does not matter if that action actually fixes the problem, as long as something is done. As a result of the Amtrak train derailment in Philadelphia, Amtrak boosters are screaming for more funding and Positive Train Control (PTC) advocates are beating the drum for mandatory installation of PTC. Yet facts reveal an older, cheaper technology with minimal costs could have prevented this accident.

While the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash, several facts have been confirmed. The train accelerated from 70 miles per hour (its normal operating speed over this section of track) to 106 miles per hour in the last minute before the crash. When the train reached a curve the speed caused the train to derail. The train’s engineer, who suffered a concussion, cannot recall much information about the crash. But records show that that he engaged the train’s emergency braking section before the wreck.

The most likely scenario involves the engineer mistakenly accelerating the train (either because he fell asleep or because of error) and then realizing his mistake and applying the emergency brake too late to stop the derailment. However, there are other possibilities. One theory is that the train experienced some kind of mechanical failure preventing the brakes from working. Another theory is the track was warped, split or otherwise defective. Until we know the cause, we won’t know how to prevent it from happening again. Whatever the cause, the full investigation is likely to take a year.

Yet that lack of information has not stopped interest groups from releasing breathless press releases. According to The Amalgamated Transit Union:

While early reports say excessive speed was a factor in this tragic accident, the lack of positive train control that would have automatically slowed the engine down and the well-documented poor condition of our nation’s rail system is just the latest example of the way in which Congress refuses to adequately fund transportation.

According to the Midwest High Speed Rail Association:

The fact that the crash happened on a 50 mph turn on a high-speed line, shows how outdated our infrastructure is. On high-speed lines across the world, curves like this would have been straightened out to allow for continuous high-speed travel. Hazards like this curve need to be removed to prevent accidents of this nature and allow for much better service on the line.

Some groups are using this accident and the tragic loss of life to advance their agenda. Their statements suggest that if Amtrak had received more government funding, than this problem would not have happened. Yet the bigger problem is how Amtrak spends its revenue. Amtrak makes a profit on this line–the Northeast Regional Service. In contrast, Amtrak’s long-distance routes such as the California Zephyr that has just 376,000 riders, lost $600 million in 2012. If Amtrak had used the money it made on the northeast corridor to improve safety on the corridor, instead of diverting it to all its money-losing routes, this accident likely would not have occurred.

Other groups suggest that if only positive train control was implemented, this and most every accident would be prevented. Yet PTC is only forecast to prevent 4 percent of railway accidents. While the cost to install a nationwide class I PTC system is $13 billion, consulting firm Oliver Wyden estimates PTC has a 20-year benefit of between $0 and $400 million. Even if all $400 million in benefits are realized the cost/benefit ratio range is $1 in benefits for every $20 spent on the system. In 2005 the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) noted that a regulatory mandate for PTC system implementation [can] not be justified based on cost-benefit principals and direct safety benefits.

Most analysts are ignoring a far simpler cheaper technology that could have prevented this crash, Amtrak’s existing automatic train control system that regulates speed. Automatic train control systems can be programmed to send information to a train about the speed limit for a section of track. Equipment inside the locomotive senses when a train is exceeding the limit and sets off an alarm. If the engineer fails to slow the train, the system triggers the train’s emergency brakes. Amtrak installed this technology on the southbound track but not the northbound track, because among other trains it slows trains too much. If the technology was installed on the northbound track, the train likely would have gone around the curve at 80 miles per hour and not come off the track.

So even though cheaper technologies are available, advocates appear to be taking advantage of an accident to lobby for more money or unnecessary safety systems. Pushing for unnecessary solutions is a disturbing way to commemorate those who lost their lives.

Baruch Feigenbaum is assistant director of transportation Policy at Reason Foundation a non-profit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.