IT’S NOT yet clear why Amtrak Northeast Regional Train 188 derailed Tuesday night, killing seven and wounding more than 200. The National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday afternoon that the train was traveling more than 100 mph in a 50 mph zone in North Philadelphia, where the tracks take a sharp turn.
At first glance, in other words, this would appear to be a story of human failure. But no matter what the investigation yields, there almost certainly will be lessons about the United States’ negligent stewardship of its roads, rails, bridges and tunnels.
Amtrak long ago should have installed automatic safeguards against reckless driving on a route like the Northeast Corridor, which is heavily trafficked and passes through dense urban centers. The technology exists. But Amtrak hasn’t finished installing its “positive train control” system, even along its busiest line.
It is also astonishing that Amtrak appears to have no reasonable alternative travel route while this line is closed, badly snarling transportation between Philadelphia and New York, a key section of rail. Airlines and regional bus carriers have scrambled to pick up the slack, but delays and hassles have already cost untold amounts of money and time. Officials haven’t said when trains will begin running again, although Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter (D) has warned that it could take several days before things get back to normal.
Members of Congress were quick to promise help Wednesday. They can start by ending their perpetual neglect of the country’s infrastructure.
Their most basic task is to put the transportation budget on sound footing, which Congress has failed to do, year after year. The Highway Trust Fund relies on the federal gasoline tax to finance all sorts of transportation needs, but the revenue stream hasn’t covered the country’s spending requirements for years. The obvious solution is to raise the gas tax, which has been at the same level since 1993. But neither President Obama nor Congress has the courage to say this aloud. Legislators are poised to patch together several billion dollars to keep the fund solvent for a short while longer, while they continue to debate second-best solutions. Instead, they should fix the problem now. Congress also should reduce the time and hassle it takes to get infrastructure projects approved.
Meanwhile, Amtrak, which is budgeted separately, requires special attention. Top on the list would be more investment in Northeast Corridor rail service, a crucial transportation line that needs attention. Had Mr. Obama devoted his high-speed rail initiative to this corridor, instead of attempting to sprinkle the funds across many states, something might have been accomplished by now.
Such steps would not lessen the burden of Tuesday night’s tragedy. They might prevent others, however.