The Associated Press reported that since 1969, nearly 300 people have died in U.S. train crashes that existing technology could have prevented.
Add the three people killed in last week’s crash south of Tacoma, Washington, and the toll is 301.
It will be 12 to 24 months before the National Transportation Safety Board completes its investigation into what caused the Amtrak cars to veer off the rails on the route’s maiden voyage, crashing onto Interstate 5 below. The NTSB said Friday that the train was going nearly 50 mph faster than allowed as it reached a curve.
Technology known as positive train control could have prevented the previous crashes, according to the NTSB. If speed, along with human error, caused Monday’s crash, that one also might have been preventable. But the technology won’t be operational on that section of track — or on other parts of Amtrak routes in Washington and Oregon — until sometime next year.
Why the delay? Cost. And the relationship between railroads and government.
Unlike highways and airports, most of the U.S. rail system is privately owned. The government steps in to improve roads and runways, although users help pay through taxes and fees. As private entities, railroads make their own decisions on track upgrades and safety improvements, although they’re often driven by government regulations and deadlines.
Cost is the key reason railroads convinced the federal government to delay — until 2018 — the deadline for positive train control. Cost is why railroads have been slow to replace old-style tanker cars — like the ones that derailed and caused an oil fire in the Columbia River Gorge last year — with sturdier, safer construction.
And cost is why Eastern Oregon lost passenger train service in 1997. The decline of federal subsidies made the route unprofitable, and Congress has never appropriated money for Amtrak to re-establish the passenger route.
From a human standpoint, it’s unconscionable that railroad companies have dragged their feet on technology and safety improvements. From a societal perspective, it raises the question of whether government should invest more to help American rail service join the 21st century.
A good rail system benefits everyone, reducing traffic congestion by taking freight and passenger vehicles off roads. A great rail system gets goods and passengers to their destinations faster, saving time and money.
Though high-speed passenger rail remains a dream — at least in the population centers of the Willamette Valley — we do not yet have consistently on-time, dependable train service in the Pacific Northwest. Our hilly and curvy topography requires slower train speeds, which is why the straighter route being inaugurated in Monday’s crash was an advantage. Rainy-season landslides can disrupt tracks. And because our rail system lacks sufficient long sidings or dual tracks, Amtrak trains often must give way to freight trains.
Still, Oregon is making headway. The transportation package passed by this year’s Legislature includes money for rail freight loading facilities in Eastern Oregon and the Mid-Willamette Valley, rail expansion at the Port of Morrow and an extended rail siding north of Salem.
Compared with the past, those are big steps. Compared with the need and the potential, they are small. And overdue.