What Does the Amtrak Incident Tell Us About How We Can Improve Safety?

We still do not know the cause of the Amtrak crash that killed 8 people and injured 200. But this has not stopped people from speculating about the cause and the potential policy implications. Unfortunately, in such circumstances it is easy to draw the wrong conclusions.

It is a sad fact that the media pay little attention to infrastructure until there is a major accident. Airplane and train crashes get nationwide coverage for days, while the hundreds of deaths every week on the highway are typically ignored (unless a celebrity is involved). While there is some attention paid to the fact that we are underinvesting in infrastructure nationwide, even this concept is often misrepresented as a safety problem, as if “crumbling bridges” will eventually result in mass fatalities. Worse, there is little to no attention paid to the fact that we are not allocating existing resources effectively. Unless there is an egregious example like the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” few people realize that we often spend lots of scarce resources on underutilized infrastructure while neglecting the pieces that are most critical economically.

Congress, understandably, typically seeks to be responsive to the issues raised in the media. But if Congress is to be responsive to this latest Amtrak incident, they need to allocate resources in infrastructure and equipment in a way that can demonstrably make a difference. But how might they be responsive in a way that is most helpful? The following are some more accurate takeaways from the coverage of the most recent incident:

  • We need to invest more in our infrastructure, including our passenger rail system, but it’s not because of safety.

When the Amtrak crash occurred, many people leapt to the conclusion that this incident was directly related to the fact that we have underinvested in our infrastructure, despite the fact that there was zero evidence for this. As the investigation began, it did indicate that if Positive Train Control (PTC) had been operational at the time this accident might have been prevented. However, we don’t actually know that for sure because the investigation is ongoing. Also, the PTC investment has already been made on this route but it had not yet been activated. Regardless, PTC is not typically what people think of when they think of “infrastructure investment” – early reactions implied that neglect of the cars or track might have been to blame and there is still no evidence for that whatsoever.

However, there are actual problems with respect to underinvestment in passenger rail, and other modes, that have serious economic consequences, and we are ignoring them. The tunnels under the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey are in a state of disrepair and will eventually need to be taken out of service. There is no identifiable funding plan to replace them. Passenger rail service in the rest of the country outside of the northeast corridor remains mostly slow or non-existent. There are several corridors with potential to carry more passengers and improve intercity travel with targeted upgrades, but with the death of the High Speed Rail program from the recovery act, there is no national vehicle by which we could make such investments.

Most recently, authorities in Washington, DC shut down two lanes on the heavily trafficked Memorial Bridge, a critical link between DC and Virginia, due to its deterioration. No one is likely to be injured or die from this underinvestment – but plenty of people will be stuck in traffic and lots of time and money will be lost. Meanwhile there are roads and bridges around the region and the country with very few users that are being maintained in excellent condition using federal funds. By not investing adequately and failing to prioritize investments, we are not necessarily causing death or injury, but we are definitely leaving untapped economic value on the table and causing unnecessary congestion and delays.

  • Rail in the U.S. remains very safe and has low ridership, so investments intended to improve safety are likely to be more effective elsewhere.

The New York Times published an article shortly after the accident that attempted to directly link our national underinvestment in rail to poor safety. The piece pointed out that the U.S. invests much less in rail, on both a per capita and percentage of GDP basis, than other developed and developing nations. Pointing to a higher safety record for other countries, and more use of PTC (known as ATP in Europe) particularly in the EU, the article claims a link between investment and safety.

However, countries that do have a high percentage of ATP equipped tracks, such as Spain, can still be subject to accidents, as the July 2013 crash in Santiago de Compostela that killed 79 and injured over 200 showed. This accident was also caused by a train going too fast around a curve, and though the automatic braking system was activated twice before the accident, the driver overrode it and was traveling at double the speed he should have been. More importantly, in other countries where millions more people are traveling by rail, investment in rail safety reasonably becomes a higher priority.

In this country rail remains dramatically safer than passenger vehicles on both an absolute and per mile traveled basis. To put the absolute numbers in perspective, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, there were a total of 3 – yes 3 – fatalities in 2013 involving passengers on trains. There were 672 total rail deaths in 2013, the vast majority of which were trespassers. By contrast, 32,719 people died on the nation’s highways in 2013. Where should we focus our limited resources?

  • Capital investments are not always the most cost-beneficial way to improve safety.

It is natural for people to draw a link between underinvestment in infrastructure and death. Underinvestment in transportation is real, and fatalities in transportation are real. But correlation is not causation. Similarly, if we want to reduce fatalities, we should not focus exclusively on those we can fix through infrastructure investment.

In fact most transportation fatalities in the U.S. are directly related to operations rather than infrastructure. Aviation has become the safest mode of transportation in part due to technological advances inside the cockpit. But airplanes are also incredibly safe because of the highly rigorous (and time-consuming and expensive) process through which pilots and controllers are certified. Contrast that process with the process by which people can acquire and maintain a drivers license and it is not surprising that cars are so much more dangerous than aircraft.

If we want to improve transportation safety, the best bang for the buck is probably in regulation and enforcement, which are low-cost and can save thousands of lives. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that 45 percent of auto fatalities in 2013 were among people not wearing seatbelts, and 33 percent were among people with Blood Alcohol Counts over 0.08. Greater enforcement of drunk driving and seatbelt laws, as well as stricter licensing requirements and new technology within vehicles, could save thousands of lives per year at a very low cost. While we certainly should make carefully selected high-priority capital investments to improve safety, technology, regulation and enforcement should be the priority.


Rahm Emanuel allegedly said, in reference to the financial crisis, “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” While it may be true that a crisis often presents opportunities to move good policies forward, it is also true that if the remedy does not fit the crisis, this quickly becomes apparent and leadership loses credibility. There are many good reasons to invest more in transportation infrastructure. Our economy and global competitiveness depend on it. If we postpone investments now we will pay more in the future. Our transportation network is contributing to climate change. We are on firm ground when we make the case based on these legitimate needs.

Safety does not fit into this category. While transportation safety is a critical issue, it is not typically remedied by greater investment. Regulation, technology, and enforcement tend to have the greatest positive impact on safety. These areas are where we should invest time and resources to improve safety. If we sell infrastructure on the need for greater safety, we will lose credibility and with good reason.

When transportation facilities are no longer safe, they are likely to be closed before anyone is at risk for death or injury. The real problem this causes is an economic one. Imagine if we had to shut down the northeast corridor, as Amtrak did in the aftermath of the accident, for a longer period of time due to sections of track becoming unusable. That would be an economic crisis, not a safety crisis. This economic crisis is real and approaching and should be the focus on our efforts in more effectively targeting our transportation infrastructure investments.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Eno Center for Transportation.

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