WASHINGTON – In this venomous Washington political climate nobody can resist the temptation to turn even a tragedy into a partisan political argument, if there seems to be an angle. Days ago, a Washington to New York Amtrak passenger train went off the rails right outside of Philadelphia. It was a pretty bad accident. The engine and all the cars derailed. At least 8 people died. Other passengers are in the hospital with critical injuries. Many more were wounded.
Blame the Republicans
And what’s the first comment we hear from top Democratic Party leaders? We hear that this accident is the direct result of chronic under investments in basic infrastructure (rail lines in this case) forced on America by stupid (and now potentially murderous) Republicans who do not want to invest in our highways, bridges and railways. In fact, as this tragedy occurred, the Republicans in Congress had just voted for cutting the already skimpy Amtrak budget. (Amtrak is partly owned, and therefore also funded by the Federal Government). Think of that!
Even if these accusations were true, as a minimum the timing is in really poor taste, considering the tragedy that had just occurred, the dead and the wounded. But, as it turns out, based on what we know so far, the Philadelphia train accident most likely has nothing to do with under investments in the nationally managed rail passenger system. This is not about poorly maintained old equipment that finally failed. This is not about rusty old tracks, or malfunctioning signals.
In fact this particular Amtrak train was powered by a brand new Siemens locomotive that had entered into service only last year. What we know so far is that the train was speeding, in a crazy way. It was supposed to enter that bend at a maximum speed of 50 miles per hour. But instead it was traveling at a speed in excess of 100. Is excessive speed enough to cause this spectacular derailment? As yet, we do not have a definitive answer about this. But this looks like the main cause.
New system not installed
Of course, there is more. All US rail lines are supposed to introduce a brand new system called “positive train control” that would automatically detect excessive speed and reduce it to safe levels, without any human intervention. This system has yet to be installed in that segment of the Washington to New York rail line.
Needless to say, this issue of the “failure to install” immediately became an additional point used by Democrats to argue that this “positive train control” system today would be operational nation wide, had the Republicans voted for sufficient funding. Once again, this is a huge distortion. The system has not yet been phased in everywhere, not because of cost, but because of complexity. In other words, it takes time to properly design it, install it, and test it.
So, what caused the horrible rail accident? So far, (mind you, this is still preliminary), it looks like human error. The on board engineer runs the locomotive. He is the one who determines the speed. He was in control when the train went into that bend, (in what is still an urban area), at 100 miles per hour instead of 50, the maximum permissible speed.
Keep in mind that this is still speculation. Something else may have happened. There is an ongoing investigation. It will take a long time before the National Transportation Safety Board people will come up with a final report on what happened.
No evidence that old equipment caused the accident
That said, so far at least, nothing –repeat, nothing– indicates that this tragedy is the result of (criminally negligent?) chronic under investment caused by the penny-pinching Republicans who do not want Americans to travel safely because they are more concerned about saving a few dollars here and there than about saving lives. There is no evidence of this. None whatsoever.
But this does not prevent toxic partisan politics from taking over, exploit a tragedy, bend the facts, invent a politically advantageous narrative, and keep repeating it, no matter what.
This is sad.
America should invest a lot more in basic infrastructure
Needless to say, it is true that America should invest more, in fact a lot more, in its basic infrastructure. I have written about this topic several times. I am a strong proponent of major new capital spending to improve highways, rail lines, airports, bridges, and what not. This would be good for all Americans. It would be good for the US economy, and for overall productivity; while it would boost our ability to compete with other modern economies.
But the decision to use a major accident as an opportunity to score political points, in this particular case without any supporting evidence, (nothing indicates that this tragedy was caused by the consequences of chronic under investment), shows how dysfunctional and mean-spirited our politics have become.