The Next Amtrak Catastrophe

The most important railways in America keep getting worse, and if we don’t fix them soon, we’re looking at a future of endless delays and tragic accidents.

05.13.15 11:35 PM ET

Maybe five or six years ago, I was reading a magazine article about The Beatles’ first trip to America in 1964, a topic on which I am something of an expert. As some of you will know, they did Ed Sullivan’s show and then took a train from New York to Washington DC, where they performed their first live U.S. concert (with a young Al Gore in attendance, fwiw).

I was reading along learning nothing new because I know all there is to know about all that until I came across a line that just staggered me. It wasn’t anything about the group; rather, it was a reference to their “two hour and 15 minute train trip.” Their what?! That trip today, as you know, is at best two hours and 40 minutes, but that is only for the “high-speed” Acela, and in truth that’s only theoretical. It’s usually more like two hours and 55 minutes. That is, if it gets there, as we might add after Tuesday night’s tragedy.

It seemed totally beyond belief that the train ride from New York to Washington could have been faster in 1964 than it was the year I was reading this article. But it was true: I was so floored by this that I called Amtrak and some rail experts I know to check, and it checked out. The reason: aging sections of track that trains have to slow down for.

Technology is supposed to go forward, not backward, especially here in the US of A. In the years since, American go-getters of various stripes have invented computers and smart phones and have seen to it that pizzas reach our doorstep in half an hour and perfected the chips that taste like melted cheese. But somehow, our trains, running in our nation’s most commercially important and rail-dependent corridor, are slower.

As I’m writing these words, we don’t yet know the reason for the Tuesday night derailment in North Philly. The preliminary informed conjecture points toward speed. It’s an area of the Northeast Corridor route that’s rated at 50 mph. If you know the route, you know why—it’s urban (just two or three miles north of the Philadelphia Zoo, which you can see out to the right on northbound trains), and it’s curvy. It seems the train was going well in excess of that speed.

So, speed, you say; well that’s probably just human error, so at least I won’t have to listen to the liberals bellyache about infrastructure. Sorry to disappoint, but this is still an infrastructure story. Here’s why.

There’s this thing in the train game called PTC—Positive Train Control. Basically, it would allow for a modernized version of what happened back in the original The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three, when an override switch stopped that Number 6 barreling toward doom in lower Manhattan. It would break track into sections, establish safe speeds for each, and use broadband connectivity in a way that would permit a train’s computers to override the conductor if the train is exceeding the safe speed and slam on the brakes.

Amtrak is installing PTC on the Northeast Corridor, and in fairness to Congress, it has mandated that Amtrak do so and provided funding to do it, although not as quickly as Amtrak has requested. Right now PTC is installed only on three short-ish sections of the Northeast Corridor—for example, from Perryville, Maryland to Wilmington. If this incident had happened there, the derailment presumably would not have happened.

Congress is constantly shorting Amtrak, and especially the Northeast Corridor, even though the Northeast Corridor makes all the money ($500 million a year, roughly). See, it works like this. It’s the same old story of the red states—you know, where they hate government—getting largesse from the blue states.

There are three categories of Amtrak routes. The first is the Northeast Corridor routes, which bring in all the dough. The second are certain intrastate routes—Albany to Buffalo, say, or Harrisburg to Pittsburgh; for these, the states have to make up any operating deficits, so by law these have to break even. Third are the long-haul interstate routes out West. These are huge money losers, and a lot of the routes should just be cut, probably, but the Republicans running Congress won’t allow that, even as they keep wanting to slash Amtrak funding overall. Rather incredibly, the House Appropriations committee stood firm on approving a $260 million cut (nearly 20 percent) to Amtrak from the previous year on Wednesday—literally the day after the tragedy, strictly along party lines. Amtrak asked for about $2 billion for next year. It may end up getting as little as $1.14 billion.

So down the road, here’s what’s going to happen. Right now, there are two tunnels under the Hudson River that carry all the passenger train traffic back and forth between New York and New Jersey. They’re a hundred years old. During Hurricane Sandy, they were flooded with salt water, which experts say sped up their deterioration. They might have to be taken out of service in seven to 10 years.

They will be taken out of service one at a time of course. But imagine what a reduction from two tunnels to one would do to service. The delays would be unbearable. Think about when one lane is closed on a two-lane highway. It doesn’t merely double your travel time during peak hours. It can triple it. So imagine boarding a train at Penn Station at 6 pm, moving 50 feet, and sitting there for 40 minutes before the tunnel is clear.

Two new tunnels are needed, and given the time that’s involved in design and environmental review and so on, seven years is just around the corner. The cost is $7 billion. That’s not chump change, but it’s a fraction of the cost of Marco Rubio’s aggressively stupid tax cuts. And even if Hillary Clinton and not Rubio is the president, two new tunnels are still going to be awfully hard to come by, although by God that all-important route across northern Montana is going to stay open—and with we Northeasterners paying for it.