Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.
A train derailment in Washington that killed several people and has left dozens still in the hospital has reopened a conversation about train infrastructure and safety. Trump jumped into the conversation about the train derailment via Twitter. Before even mentioning those who died or were injured, he tweeted:
The train accident that just occurred in DuPont, WA shows more than ever why our soon to be submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly. Seven trillion dollars spent in the Middle East while our roads, bridges, tunnels, railways (and more) crumble! Not for long!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 18, 2017
The irony of Trump’s tweet though, is that his budget proposal actually calls for cuts to transportation infrastructure, as journalist Phil Elliot pointed out:
The President’s budget request on trains was described thusly: “a nearly 13 percent reduction in transportation spending over fiscal 2017 … and a $630 million reduction in subsidies for long-distance Amtrak routes.” https://t.co/0TS3YGG6od https://t.co/7oxxp9LEXa
— Phil Elliott (@Philip_Elliott) December 18, 2017
Amtrak Cascades 501 (the train that crashed) likely wouldn’t be affected by these budget cuts, since, as Amtrak told ABC, the route is not “classified as long-distance.” This makes Trump’s tweet even more nonsensical, and casts it as a clearly opportunistic political move to push for his proposed cuts. As the Washington Post reported in May, subsidies for long-distance Amtrak paths would be hit hard, as would money for new construction.
With all eyes on questions over transit spending and safety, the Washington derailment opens a larger conversation about investment into infrastructure, particularly safety measures. As an investigation into Monday’s crash is ongoing, two contributing factors include the speed the train was traveling (an estimated 50 mph above the limit), as well as the absence of the safety measure Positive Train Control, or PTC.
According to CNN, PTC “can automatically slow down and stop a train if it senses the locomotive is going too fast or could get into an accident.” PTC was set-up on part of the tracks that the Amtrak train was traveling on, but was not functioning yet, according to the company that owns these tracks. As CNN reported, the start date for PTC operations on this segment was between April 1 and June 30 of 2018.
The Washington derailment isn’t the first time PTC has come up in connection to train crashes. The debate over installation and cost of PTC was ignited in 2008 following the death of 25 in California. Though the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 mandated the implementation of PTC by the end of 2015, this comply date has been moved to the end of 2018, and has the possibility of exceptions made to comply by 2020. If Trump really wanted to prevent more crashes like the one in Washington, he would support full, immediate implementation of the Rail Safety Improvement Act—not further cuts to Amtrak.
The cost of installing PTC has slowed the process, but train derailments and accidents have continued to occur since 2008. In addition, government cuts have been made to Amtrak’s budget even after train crashes. As Politico reported in 2015, almost 20 percent of Amtrak’s budget was cut the day after eight people died in a Philadelphia derailment. Though PTC was implemented in the train in question in Philadelphia, it had not been installed on the tracks. The technology must be present and operating in both.
The United States is struggling in how to actually return to an age of high-functioning trains that serve people’s needs while transporting them safely. As Jon Worth argued in Politico shortly after the Philadelphia crash, looking at a European train model shows that things like PTC and a stable and clear source of funding are imperative in achieving this goal.