Investigators were still working Wednesday to determine the exact cause of Amtrak’s fatal derailment in Philadelphia Tuesday night, which killed at least seven passengers and injured about 200. The train appears to have been going double the posted speed limit when it crashed going around a hard left turn. But whatever the ultimate findings of the investigation, for anyone familiar with the history of rail in America, the wreckage on the tracks will remain a symbol of deeper and systematic identity troubles within Amtrak, the nation’s quasi-governmental system of long-distance trains.
Born from an awkward political fix nearly five decades ago, today’s setup might now be compared to a federalized version of the Chicago Cubs: It has its likable characteristics and impassioned defenders, but seems trapped in its own mediocrity, and incompetence has almost become a distinct brand identity.
Americans who vacation in Europe are frequently struck by the professionalism, convenience and reach of the continent’s rail network and ask a very good question: Why can’t we do that here? How can a nation whose industrial power was built by the railroads be left with a starving system that might embarrass former Soviet bloc countries?
Passenger trains outside the Northeast Corridor (where Monday’s crash occurred) must lease their lines from big Class I freight carriers, many of them now hauling crude oil, which means delays are as much a part of the experience as the soggy breakfast sandwiches in the snack bar. Lines like the Capitol Limited between Chicago and Washington are late far more often than they’re on time.
There is a perverse historical reason for this that goes beyond politics: The United States never suffered catastrophic bombing during World War II and thus (as I detailed in my book, “Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World — From the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief“) had no need to give special attention to its massive network of privatized systems like the Union Pacific, C&O and Great Northern, which, combined, carried around 70 percent of the intercity traveling public.
Europe was different: Its railroads were wrecked, its population was hungry for jobs, and its governments were flush with Marshall Plan aid that was almost immediately channeled into the powerful rail ministries. Lavish infrastructure spending ensured that tiny hamlets across France, Germany and Italy got multiple daily visits from locomotives pulling cars of food, mail and people. And automobile ownership across Europe lagged far behind America in the postwar rebuilding years, so the rails were economically indispensable.
All the willpower in the United States, meanwhile, went to building the Interstate Highway system — a pet project of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had been impressed with German autobahns and also wanted a rapid way of evacuating American cities in case of a nuclear strike. Congress also saw it as a bonus to Texas oil companies and Detroit carmakers. The public-private prosperity dynamic had no patience for trains anymore.
As diesel trucks gradually chewed into the cargo business and the Boeing 707 made coast-to-coast air travel affordable to middle-class Americans, the glorious American trains lionized by folk musicians and poets began a slide to irrelevance. New York destroyed its magnificent Penn Station, carriages got grimy, speeds got painfully slow, tracks rotted to the point where some of them cracked and collapsed under the weight of a stationery train — an event known as a “standing derailment.”
The system improved a bit in 1970, when Richard Nixon signed the Rail Passenger Service Act, merging all the battered passenger trains under a government umbrella with an expectation of profitability. Profits, though, never followed, because the agency known as Amtrak has an impossible mission. Congress must approve its annual budget — at a rate of subsidy that lags far behind that granted to European railroads — which barely pays for maintenance, let alone the kind of costly improvements that would make it a genuine alternative to the car or bus in places outside the Boston-Washington corridor. The Northeast, where rail traffic between Philadelphia and New York remained suspended Tuesday afternoon, carries 11 million passengers each year in one of the only parts of the nation that retains a robust cultural identity with trains. Even there, the high-speed disappointment known as the Acela must run along a right-of-way first surveyed in the early 19th century with many anachronistic curves, including the one jumped by the train Monday morning.
So don’t blame Amtrak for the mess. Blame history and the law. If Americans really want anything more from their passenger trains besides a future of lumbering banality — besmirched by a few dozen derailments and a handful of passengers killed each year — the 1970 law must be amended to guarantee a healthy level of federal support, clearly prioritize passenger trains over freights, take posturing by Congress out of the equation, double-down on advertising and capturing new customers and lay down dedicated tracks outside the Northeast Corridor. The current Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act of 2015 doles out what amounts to more starvation rations: a paltry $7 billion over the next four years, which means nothing is going to change. Amtrak needs to stop becoming a symbol of American incompetence and start leading the way in an era of fuel shortages and highway congestion.