The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Amtrak makes financial gains but safety issues persist

An Amtrak passenger train was involved in a fatal crash in South Carolina in February.
An Amtrak passenger train was involved in a fatal crash in South Carolina in February. (Jeff Blake/Associated Press)

Amtrak cut its annual operating losses by nearly half last year while improving customer service — cleaner restrooms and better training for those who deal with passengers — but the company still has a weak safety culture that has cost 20 passengers and employees their lives since 2012, according to a report by the railroad’s inspector general.

The nation’s passenger rail corporation cut its operating losses to $194 million last year, a 46 percent drop, and expects to reduce that loss by an additional $14 million in fiscal 2018. The railroad plans to eliminate its losses by 2021, the report said.

Amtrak’s inspector general said the savings were made by culling the ranks of management and identifying other cost-cutting measures, even as the railroad spruced up passenger car interiors, did a better job with restrooms, provided more training for “customer-facing” workers and upgraded its train engines.

But the inspector general cites the National Transportation Safety Board in saying that a “weak safety culture” has contributed to crashes, derailments and other issues that have killed 11 passengers and nine Amtrak workers since October 2012.

After two crashes in December and February that killed five people, Amtrak’s customer satisfaction index and its bookings for long-distance trips plummeted. Between the two incidents, Amtrak named a former airline executive as its chief safety officer.

“As recommended in the report, we have made significant steps to become America’s safest passenger railroad,” Amtrak said in a response to the inspector general’s report.

Primary among those steps is implementation of what is known as positive train control (PTC), a system designed to remove human error from train movement, preventing crashes. Preliminary reports suggest that PTC could have prevented both crashes last winter, as well as crashes on freight and passenger railroads that the NTSB says have killed 141 and injured 2,426 since 1988.

The challenge for Amtrak is that in regions other than the Northeast Corridor — from Washington to New England — and about 230 miles in Michigan, most of the track on which it operates is owned by other railroads.

Some of the host railroads have made more progress in implementing a congressional mandate that they install PTC, while others have not.

Ten years after crash that pushed Congress to mandate lifesaving train technology, one-third of nation’s rail network remains without

Amtrak “is dependent on those railroads to install their own PTC systems and then synchronize them with Amtrak’s onboard systems,” the report said. “The company predicts that 13 [of 19] of these host railroads will not be able to fully synchronize their systems or operate their PTC by the end of 2018.”

Congress initially required railroads to install PTC by the end of 2015. But as the deadline approached, the industry argued successfully that the technology was too complicated and not fully developed. Railroads argued that the nearly $15 billion required to educate rail workers and install onboard computers in engines and communication towers along more than 40 percent of the nation’s 134,000 miles of freight and commuter lines was prohibitive.

Congress extended the deadline until the end of this year but allowed an extension to 2020 for qualified railroads.

The inspector general’s report also said Amtrak’s long-distance train routes will continue to be a drag on the bottom line.

“While the company has made significant progress in reducing its operating loss, it will face difficulties in eliminating the loss without addressing the historically high costs incurred on its long-distance routes,” the inspector general’s report said.

Those losses have averaged $517 million over the past five years, the report says, “enough to significantly offset the company’s net earnings from other routes.”

A key element in the decision to fly or to take the train is customer satisfaction. In July, on-time arrivals had dropped to just above 30 percent for long-distance Amtrak trains.

Though federal law requires that Amtrak be given priority over freight rail traffic, freight rail dispatchers govern much of the track on which Amtrak trains run and, the report says that “this right is seldom enforced.”

One result: Amtrak’s Crescent route between New York and New Orleans arrives on schedule about 13 percent of the time.