Tags: Amtrak Derailment | amtrak | derailment | philadelphia | funding | ntsb

Investigators Again Asking: Why Do Amtrak Trains Derail?

By    |   Wednesday, 13 May 2015 11:50 AM

The derailment of Amtrak's Train 188, from Washington, D.C., to New York, left a horrific disaster in its wake — six dead, over 150 injured, seven train cars, and an engine severely damaged, and train service to Philadelphia disrupted.

But while investigators from Amtrak, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) crawl over the wreckage, trying to discover what caused the train bearing 238 passengers and five crew members to leave the tracks, the most basic of questions remains — why do Amtrak's trains derail?

According to the FRA, derailments are disturbingly common, but usually happen without serious consequences. Between 2012 and this year, there were 4,065 derailments listed on the FRA's website, with causes ranging from human and equipment failure to debris on the tracks, floods, and snow.

Rails frequently are broken, cars improperly loaded and unbalanced, vandalism occurs and signals sometimes fail or are ignored.

George Bibel, a University of North Dakota professor of engineering and author of "Train Wreck: The Forensics of Rail Disasters," says that, "Most derailments are relatively benign, and can be compared to a person walking down the street, tripping, getting back up, and continuing on her or his way."

However, others are not.

Amtrak's first major derailment, in 1971 near Salem, Illinois, resulted in 11 deaths and 163 injuries, The Washington Post reports, while the deadliest crash in Amtrak's history occurred in 1993 in Alabama when a train fell from a trestle, dropped 12 feet and landed in a bayou, causing 40 deaths, the Post reports.

The specific cause of Tuesday's crash still is unknown, but one underlying cause likely is the lack of money the profit-losing Amtrak has for rail and rolling stock improvements.

"The problem that you have, and you've had it since 1976 and even before, is that there's never been an investment program that would bring the infrastructure up where it belongs on existing capacity," Joseph Boardman, president of Amtrak, told The Atlantic.

"The improvements on infrastructure are an equity question. The United States has lost its understanding of what that means for highways, for railroads, for transit systems, and they need to regain it," he said.

Simon Van Zuylen-Wood
, writing in the National Journal, commented, "The House of Representatives agreed to fund Amtrak for the next four years at a rate of $1.4 billion per year. Meanwhile, the Chinese government — fair comparison or not — will be spending $128 billion this year on rail."

Bibel wrote, "Derailments are usually caused by equipment failures. Broken, settled, spread, shifted or overturned rails account for about 50 percent of the equipment-related derailments.

"Poor train handling, incorrectly set track switches, unsecured cars on a hill, shifted loads, vandalism, or obstructions on the track are among the human causes of derailments. Derailments can also be caused by flash floods, avalanches, rock slides, and high winds," the Post reported.

Amtrak is profitable in the much-traveled Northeast Corridor and passenger loads have increased by 50 percent in the last 15 years, the Journal reports. However, in the rest of the country, with long distances to be crossed, Amtrak runs at a loss.

The Journal reported, "Together, the Highway Trust Fund and the Federal Aviation Administration receive about 45 times what Amtrak does, through subsidies and gas taxes."

The NTSB has recovered the train's "black box," similar to the recording devices on airplanes, and hopes it will reveal the cause of the Tuesday disaster, ABC News reports.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said, "There is clearly more that can be done when we're talking about a railway infrastructure that is decades old. If there's an opportunity for us to make further investments in our infrastructure that would better safeguard the traveling public, then those are investments that we should make," CNN reported.

Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Pa., told CNN, "If we're not investing in our safety for the Northeast Corridor, we're not doing what we should be doing down here. We need to continue to invest in our passenger rail system, a critical piece of the economy in the Northeast part of the country."

Watch the video here.

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While investigators from Amtrak, the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Railroad Administration crawl over the wreckage of Amtrak Train 188, trying to discover what caused the train to leave the tracks, the most basic of questions remains — why do Amtrak's trains derail?
amtrak, derailment, philadelphia, funding, ntsb
Wednesday, 13 May 2015 11:50 AM
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