Four mishaps in four months, three fatal, would be evidence that America’s national railroad is failing — except that America doesn’t have a national railroad. Amtrak runs its trains across a motley collection of fragmented tracks owned by freight railroads and commuter railroads. That means it has no consistent control over keeping people safe when it comes to crossings and speed, the biggest causes of crashes.
The first crash killed three Amtrak passengers right before Christmas in Washington state. There, the regional commuter railroad, Sound Transit, had built new tracks that allowed for higher speeds — but opened up the tracks before it finished installing technology that automatically governs speed when a human operator has failed to do so. In that case, the Amtrak train was going nearly three times the legal speed limit when it derailed on an overpass, falling to a highway below.
In the second crash, last week, an Amtrak train carrying Republican members of Congress to a retreat crashed into a garbage truck on the tracks in Virginia, killing a passenger in the truck.
These tracks, too, aren’t owned by Amtrak. They’re owned by the private freight company CSX, which leases them to a local railroad.
That means there’s no one pushing to separate the crossing via a tunnel or a bridge. Trains crossing with cars and trucks is a leading cause of crashes for both freight and passenger trains. Remember, an SUV driver on the tracks was the cause of a Metro-North crash that killed four passengers in 2013.
In the third crash, an Amtrak train smashed into a freight train in South Carolina on Sunday, killing two crew members, one of whom has previously expressed fears about safety. There, too, freight operator CSX was responsible for signal and track management. Speaking of CSX, Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson said, “They are in complete control of the track, the signaling, the switching.”
Not that Amtrak is doing a great job when it is in charge. On Monday, an Acela train from Washington, DC, to Penn Station decoupled en route. Nobody was harmed, but if you were on your way to the bathroom, you could have fallen right off. And Amtrak has been slow in critical projects like maintaining Penn Station’s tracks and installing speed-control technology.
Even this supposedly superior Washington-to-Boston corridor suffers from the same problem: a dizzying array of shared responsibility for tracks and signals from freight to commuter railroads along the way harms accountability.
It also prevents Amtrak from offering real high-speed service, because Amtrak doesn’t have enough straight stretches of track to go fast on. It’s still nearly as quick to drive to Boston as it is to take the Acela, and far cheaper.
And if the Hudson Tunnel eventually fails, stranding New Jersey Transit commuters as well as Amtrak riders, this muddled accountability is also the culprit. Washington can’t decide just how much of the project Amtrak should pay for, versus New York and New Jersey.
You’d think it might be easier to provide fast service through the open countryside. Nope. In 2016, a cattle-feed truck rolled into some tracks owned by BNSF, another freight company, denting them. An Amtrak train came along and derailed, injuring 28.
It’s easy to suggest privatizing passenger rail — except it doesn’t solve the problem.
In January, a private company started running a passenger train service, called Brightline, up Florida’s East Coast. It’s super-cool to have a new, private train service somewhere in the country. Except the Brightline trains also share tracks with freight operators and across roadways. In its first month of service, two Brightline trains killed two people on the tracks in two separate incidents — and the same thing happened twice in testing, as well.
Both victims last month apparently tried to cross the tracks despite gates and signals warning of an approaching train. But people’s propensity to do that is why you separate trains from roadways.
Without a government commitment to building a network of safe tracks and trains, private passenger train operators are just as stuck as Amtrak. And that commitment isn’t just money: It means taking swaths of land along railroad corridors, including in densely populated areas, via eminent domain.
It’s a big cultural decision: Does America want to be more like Europe and Asia, where people live more closely together, making tens of billions of dollars of investment in infrastructure to move them around economical? Or does it want to get out of the railroad business completely in much of the country — and put the money saved toward achingly slow improvements from Washington to Boston?
As it is, Amtrak is providing bad and unsafe service to everyone — and safe high-speed service to no one.
This piece originally appeared in the New York Post