No way to run a railroad: Three fatal AMTRAK crashes in 49 days

Horrible news from South Carolina this morning. If America is going to have a passenger rail system, we have to do much better than this.  Via The State:

A crash involving an Amtrak passenger train and a freight train in Cayce, South Carolina, left at least two people dead and more than 50 injured.

Pine Ridge train incident update: @CountyLex confirms two fatalities, more than 50 injured transported to the hospital. Shelter for passengers open at Pine Ridge Middle School. Media update @SCEMD at 6:30 a.m. #alert

— SCEMD (@SCEMD) February 4, 2018

Crash scene via Lexington Sheriff

It would appear that something is seriously wrong with the way passenger rail is operating in the United States under the federal corporation AMTRAK. This crash is the third fatal AMTRAK crash since the AMTRAK Cascades train derailed in Washington State at the cost of 3 lives and 62 passenger injuries only 49 days ago.  Last Wednesday’s crash in Virginia of a train carrying Congressional Republicans to a retreat killed one. And now, the South Carolina crash has killed at least two.

Each of these three accidents had a separate, probably preventable cause, though of course official verdicts await formal proceedings.

The Washington State crash was due to excessive speed going into a curve.

The Virginia crash was due to a garbage truck on a grade crossing being hit by a train. There were some media reports that a crossing barrier that should have prevented access as a train approached was not functioning, but that is not absolutely clear as the cause.

The South Carolina crash was due to two trains being placed on the same track – something that should not happen with the level of sophisticated signaling available to dispatchers.

The Union Pacific Railroad’s Harriman Dispatching Center manages every train on its rail network

Except in the Northeast Corridor, AMTRAK trains operate on tracks owned by private railways, which make their money from freight. The divided responsibility may have some relation to the problems being experienced.

Rail travel can be a wonderful experience for passengers, but only if the trains are safe. Hurtling down the rails at high speed can be scary if one suspects that a crash may be coming, and these accidents are going to do nothing to encourage people to utilize trains.

Japan is one of the heaviest users of train travel in the world, and the standards of safety, maintenance, and punctuality are beyond the dreams of anyone in the United States. If a passenger train arrives one minute late, there will be an apology to passengers over the loudspeaker system.

I did a quick and dirty calculation of the ratio of crashes to total passengers carried. AMTRAK carried 31.3 million passengers in 2016, while Japan’s railways carried 7.589 billion in 2014, the closest date I could find quickly, or 242 times more passengers. If Japan’s railroads had the same rate of fatal crashes as Amtrak over the past 49 days, they would have experienced almost 15 fatal crashes per day.

I realize this is unfair in various ways, but the point is still relevant. Fatal train crashes in Japan are very, very rare, and when they happen, they are a very big deal, because almost everyone uses trains a lot. This makes it worthwhile to invest heavily in safety measures.

For those interested in how Japan manages to run its railroads so safely, this half-hour program produced by NHK, the Japanese version of the BBC (full disclosure: decades ago, I worked for NHK as a part-time overseas news editor for a year), is highly instructive on the maintenance measures taken for conventional rail (as opposed to Shinkansen high speed rail). The short answer is that they spend a lot of effort and money on maintaining their railways to a high standard.


I would say that it is safe bet that Congress will be holding hearings on safety at AMTRAK.  Even Democrats in Congress take trains on occasion.

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