Tuesday evening’s derailment of Amtrak 188 in Philadelphia underscores the real consequences of neglecting America’s fragile infrastructure. According to a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) spokesperson, the stretch of rail track where the crash took place wasn’t equipped with an automated speed control (aka positive train control or PTC) system. The NTSB official added that “based on what we know right now, we feel that had such a system been installed in this section of track, this accident would not have occurred.”
Clearly, the investigation into the causes of this horror story is ongoing, but the point is that if available technological safeguards were in place, even a reckless decision to drive at twice the recommended speed limit around that curve could well have been overridden.
Indeed, the absence of PTC and other accident prevention strategies everywhere throughout the U.S. rail system is inexcusable. The absence also reflects a much larger problem: an irresponsible lack of commitment by the federal government to our national rail system and the rest of the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.
Americans seem to have an inordinately high tolerance for preventable risk. Or maybe it’s better described as a politically pathological aversion to making long-term investments in our future resiliency. How else can one explain the failure to repair and upgrade the infrastructure we depend on to commute, transport goods and services to market, and travel?
Our breath-taking scope of inattention encompasses not just the rail system but all of our transportation systems from highways and bridges to tunnels and levees, shipping channels, waste facilities, and an antiquated electrical grid that remains highly vulnerable to all manner of cyberthreats, natural and otherwise.
We once had an infrastructure envied around the globe, initiated by visionaries like Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower and built by the best engineers and workers on earth. Now all of that has fallen victim to political paralysis, a failure to understand priorities and dangerous shortsightedness.
Look no further than the deplorable vote taken by the Appropriations Committee in the House of Representatives less than a day after the deadly Philadelphia crash. Victims were still trapped in the rubble while lawmakers slashed Amtrak’s budget by $260 million, or roughly one-fifth of its total funding, some attempting to justify their action by saying they “have no idea” what caused the derailment.
Tuesday’s tragedy on the rails could be seen as one more “wake up call” shining a light on the poor state of America’s infrastructure as a whole. But if history holds, as the story fades from page one and the TV cameras leave, this experience will more resemble what happens when we hit the snooze button and drift back into a state of recurrent complacency.
Every four years, the American Society of Engineers (ASCE) completes an assessment of the nation’s infrastructure conditions and needs. In its latest report, published in 2013, the organization gave a cumulative grade of D+, a score that should demand a call to action by a Congress that has become shockingly comfortable with failing to address complex or costly challenges.
It’s worth remembering that this latest calamity is one of a long run of infrastructure inadequacies that famously include the great northeastern blackout of 2003, the vulnerable levees that collapsed during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the 2007 I-35 Mississippi River bridge failure in Minneapolis and train-related fatal accidents in Los Angeles and just outside of New York City, in 2008and 2013, respectively.
Doing what needs to get done would be costly—more than $3.5 trillion according to the ASCE. But this is critical work that must be prioritized because it’s needed. And, by the way, let’s not forget that a massive national infrastructure renewal project with a 10 - 15 year time-line could be an extraordinary economic driver and job creator. It would also save money by reducing the amount of disasters caused by crumbling infrastructure, and the exacerbated impacts of disasters on critical infrastructure.
With respect to America’s rail system, the fact is that we have fallen far behind the speed, efficiency and safety of systems in other highly developed nations in Western Europe and Asia. It’s easy to see why. The U.S spends $1.4 billion annually on our national rail system, though experts contend that Amtrak’s northeast corridor system alone needs more than $20 billion in modernization and upgrades.
It shouldn’t have to take eight innocent people dying in a train crash to get serious about fixing the nation’s infrastructure.
We are asking Congress and the White House to address the challenge of infrastructure modernization and resiliency as an emergency, high priority focus. Presidential leadership and meaningful, sufficient Congressional action is the way forward. How long will we wait?
Dr. Irwin Redlener is director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at the Earth Institute at Columbia University and a professor of health policy and management at the Mailman School of Public Health.