Joshua Gotbaum is a guest scholar in economic studies at the Brookings Institution.
My friends started calling as soon as the news broke about the Amtrak derailment in Washington state.
They worried I would suffer flashbacks to the horrible night in May 2015 when Amtrak 188 derailed near Philadelphia. I was one of the “lucky ones”; unlike the woman right behind me, the midshipman two rows ahead and six others, I lived. I “only” had scratched corneas, broken ribs and a damaged knee.
In some ways, flashbacks are appropriate because the similarities between the two derailments are eerie: In both, the trains were going much too fast. In both, positive train control (PTC) safety systems could have prevented the accidents by automatically slowing down the trains. In both cases, PTC systems had already been installed on the tracks. And, in both cases, they hadn’t been turned on yet — because the deadline for installing them hadn’t been reached and Amtrak balked at spending money on safety until it absolutely had to do so.
I did have flashbacks, but they weren’t to the accident. I flashed back to Amtrak’s responses afterward, which were appalling — a combination of callous indifference and phony promises to reform. And to the response of Congress, equally appalling, which was both to delay PTC requirements that would prevent these disasters and to limit Amtrak’s liability to compensate its victims when disasters occur.
The National Transportation Safety Board has been recommending PTC for 45 years, but it took a head-on train collision in 2008 in California that killed 25 people and injured more than 100 to get Congress to move. Responding to that disaster, Congress gave major railroads more than seven years, until the end of 2015, to install PTC systems. Had the requirement been in place eight months earlier, Amtrak would have turned on its PTC system, Amtrak 188 wouldn’t have derailed, I would still have my knee, and eight people would not have died.
Sadly, the response of the railroad industry to the Philadelphia disaster was not to install PTC, but to delay it. Railroads complained about the costs and threatened not to run their trains unless Congress pushed the deadline to 2018. Congress caved completely, allowing railroads to defer PTC without penalty. Congress even allowed an additional loophole: If railroads “showed progress,” they didn’t have to start using PTC until 2020.
The first thing that Amtrak Cascades 501 victims and their families will likely learn, as we did, is that this accident didn’t have to happen. But the bad news doesn’t stop there, because in 1997, Congress also decided to cap at $200 million the total compensation that Amtrak and other passenger railroads must pay when their negligence leads to an accident. This means that the costs of major accidents are sometimes borne not by the negligent railroad, but by its victims. One judge applying this cruel law in another case said, “There just wasn’t enough money . . . what was given to one victim had to be taken from another.” He described the process as a daily exercise in “Sophie’s Choice.”
That’s what happened after the Amtrak accident in Philadelphia. Congress raised the cap to $295 million, but that was far from sufficient to compensate the eight families who lost loved ones and the 200 passengers who suffered life-changing injuries. Amtrak ended up paying only a fraction of the damage it had inflicted. The victims ended up bearing a large part of their own medical costs and lost wages. Meanwhile, Amtrak’s chief executive — who ran what the NTSB described as a railroad lacking a “safety culture” for eight years — retired without so much as a slap on the wrist.
My heart goes out to the victims of Amtrak Cascades 501. They deserve better than what we experienced after Amtrak 188. Sadly, the responses from Washington thus far aren’t encouraging. President Trump, ignoring the sharp cuts to Amtrak’s funding that he proposed this year, used the tragedy instead to talk about an infrastructure program he has yet to propose — despite the fact that the tracks had been refurbished and the train was new. Congress, for its part, now makes statements about the need for PTC, but its members do not mention that they delayed requiring it and that more people have died as a result.
For the victims of the crash Monday near Seattle, it’s far too late to promise better safety controls. But it’s not too late to eliminate the liability cap and to say that government- funded railroads should be responsible for their actions and that the victims of Amtrak’s negligence should get the full protection of the law.
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