Amtrak sacrificed safety at crash site

By MICHAEL SCHREIBER

— PHILADELPHIA — As we go to press, the causes of the deadly May 12 Amtrak derailment are still unclear. Authorities are investigating the possibility that the train was hit by some sort of projectile moments before it entered the dangerous curve at Frankford Junction, in Philadelphia’s Port Richmond neighborhood.

Unfortunately, while the facts of the disaster were only beginning to be sorted out, some officials and media commentators were quick to place major blame for the crash on the engineer, Brandon Bostian—charging him with heedlessly speeding through the curve.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter made the case against the engineer on national television: “Clearly he was reckless and irresponsible in his actions. … There can be no excuse that can be offered, unless he had a heart attack.”

Yet Bostian’s colleagues portray him as highly skilled in his job and a conscientious advocate of rail safety. Bostian complained on the internet in 2012, for example, that Amtrak was dragging its feet in putting new safety technology in place. He pointed out, “They have had nearly a hundred years of opportunity to implement SOME sort of system to mitigate human error, but with a few notable exceptions have failed to do so.”

On another occasion, Bostian laid out the dangers of forced overtime and excessive hours for Amtrak workers: “What will you say when the crew that’s been on duty for longer than 12 hours accidentally passes a stop signal and falls asleep and rear ends a loaded HazMat train, killing dozens or hundreds of people?”

Bostian’s remarks presaged a disaster in which eight people lost their lives and dozens were seriously injured. There is no doubt that Amtrak management was negligent in its decision to not install Positive Train Control (PTC) on the northbound track at Frankford Junction—one of the tightest curves on the route. PTC is an electronic system that would have alerted the operator to dangers ahead and brought the train to a stop if it were running at an unsafe speed.

Amtrak officials explain away their faulty decision by stating that it never occurred to them that a train leaving Philadelphia would have accelerated to a dangerous speed by the time it reached the junction. The engineer must slow down from the posted 80 mph to 50 mph in order to negotiate the curve.

If any location on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor requires careful attention to safety, Frankford Junction is it. This stretch of track—which carries more passengers than any other in the Amtrak system—was first put into operation 150 years ago at the end of the Civil War. Today it abuts a small rail yard, where tanker cars, loaded with heavy petroleum, ethanol, and other explosive substances, are often parked.

In the May 12 derailment, the locomotive barely averted crashing into a line of tanker cars. Such a collision could have destroyed the adjacent neighborhood of residential homes and industrial facilities with a firestorm. The likelihood of such a catastrophe is ever present in Philadelphia, where hundreds of trains a week, often laden with over three million gallons of crude oil per train, cross the city to nearby refineries. These oil trains often closely parallel the rights of way used by passenger trains, and sometimes even share trackage with Amtrak.

The lack of advanced safety equipment at Frankford Junction—and on other Amtrak routes—is a direct outgrowth of the refusal of U.S. capitalism to adequately fund our social needs. Citing “budget shortfalls,” the semi-public Amtrak joined the private freight-carrying railroads in resisting the provisions of the U.S. Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 to install Positive Train Control throughout their systems by the end of this year.

In 2011, the Obama administration bent to the demands of the rail corporations and slashed by 10,000 miles the amount of track where the PTC safety gear was required to be installed. And in March 2015, a Senate subcommittee voted to delay full implementation of PTC technology for another five years. The bipartisan bill was sponsored by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who has accepted over $290,000 in campaign contribution from the railroads during his career.

For a decade, ridership has increased every year on Amtrak; it would probably increase by a huge factor if the trains ran more frequently and on schedule, and if trains were restored to cities and towns that no longer have passenger service. The system’s failure to run on time is due in large part to deteriorated trackage and the necessity to share its routes and to give way to slow and heavy freight trains run by the big railroad corporations.

But in yet another display of where its priorities lie, the House Appropriations Committee slashed $250 million in funding for Amtrak on the day after the May 12 disaster. According to Amtrak, by 2019, funding for the Northeast Corridor will cover only a quarter of what is necessary to keep it in good repair.

Since its inception in 1971, Amtrak has received about $1 billion a year from Congress. Despite inflation, the sum has risen by very little in recent years, and now is slated to be decreased. (A third of the appropriations that Amtrak receives from Congress goes to pay the interest on borrowed money from wealthy bondholders.)

In contrast, the U.S. has allotted over $700 billion annually for direct military and national security costs in the last few years.

According to a 2013 report by researchers at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq alone cost over $2 trillion. Eventually, counting veterans’ benefits and interest payments, the costs of these wars will balloon to a figure of between $4 trillion and $6 trillion. That is far more than the costs of repairing the entire deteriorated network of roads, railways, bridges, and public facilities in the United States.

In this era of severe climate change, it is essential to improve mass transit worldwide. Unfortunately, the United States lags virtually all industrialized nations in this category. Whereas the discussion should be about expanding the network of passenger railroads, electrifying lines and making them safer and more efficient, Congress and Amtrak are talking about cutbacks in quality of service, deferred maintenance and repairs, deteriorated working conditions and lay-offs, and eliminating even more rail lines.

And now, as the disaster at Frankford Junction demonstrated, safety and people’s lives are being sacrificed to capitalism’s demands for austerity in the interests of higher corporate profits.

Photo: Jim LoScalzo / European Pressphoto Agency