Is Dianne Feinstein Responsible for the Amtrak Crash that Killed Eight? No, But Government Safety Mandates Can Have Tragic and Unintended Consequences.

Congress's decision to mandate an expensive and complicated safety system made American travelers less safe.


Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) |||

When news broke that the likely cause of last week's Amtrak crash was that the engineer was doing 106 on a 50-mph curve, liberal pundits were left scrounging for a ways to use this tragedy to make a case for spending more federal tax dollars on passenger rail. The narrative that needed to be retrofitted to the facts was that Republican lawmakers had blood on their hands for blocking efforts to give Amtrak the vital money it needed to safely run its trains.

And so they discovered Positive Train Control (PTC), a technology that up until last week only rail geeks had heard about. (What news editor would let a phrase like that slip past the red pen?) PTC is a system that uses radio signals and GPS to prevent trains from speeding, and in 2008, a federal law mandated that all passenger rail systems install it by the end of 2015. Though overall federal (and state) subsidies to Amtrak have climbed every year since, Congress didn't directly providing funds for PTC's implementation.

PTC would have prevented last week's crash, but Amtrak didn't have it installed yet on the track where last week's crash occurred.

"Republican Cuts Kill…Again," was the headline of a shamelessly misleading and inaccurate video posted by the Agenda Project Action Fund, a liberal policy group. "Currently Available Technology May Have Prevented Fatal Amtrak Crash. But Congress Never Funded It," was the title of a Think Progress post by Josh Israel.

What these big government opportunists chose to ignore is that PTC never made sense in the first place. That's because it's wildly expensive without much benefit, as Baruch Feigenbaum, a transportation policy analyst with the Reason Foundation, noted in a recent blog post:

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) places the cost at more than $13 billion to install and maintain a nationwide class I PTC system. Consulting firm Oliver Wyden estimated that PTC has a 20 year benefit between $0-$400 million. Even if all $400 million in benefits are realized, the cost/benefit ratio range is $1 in benefits for every $20 spent on the system.

PTC also involves use of the spectrum, so installing it means coordinating with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which is exactly the sort of complex management challenge a dysfunctional organization like Amtrak isn't up to.

But there's another safety technology that could have prevented last week's crash, which does make a lot of sense. As Feigenbaum writes:

The most obvious solution would be to expand Amtrak's existing automatic train control system that regulates speed. Automatic train control systems can be programmed to send information to a train about the speed limit for a section of track…If the technology was installed on the northbound track [where last week's accident occurred], the train likely would have gone around the curve at 80 miles per hour and not come off the track.

The 2008 mandate for PTC got pushed through Congress only because of a 2008 train crash in California:

Even before the final safety report [for that accident] was released, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) began pushing to mandate automated safety equipment for all large railway systems…Swept up in the emotion, Congress in 2008 failed to seriously consider any solution except PTC. The PTC bill passed October 16, 2008 with limited debate only a month after the crash.

After last week's crash, Amtrak quickly went with the cheaper and more logical soultion, and installed an Automatic Train Control (ATC) system on the stretch of track where the accident occurred in one weekend.

While it's true that PTC works better than ATC at preventing crashes, in a world of scarcity and tradeoffs, the most expensive and complicated system is often the worse choice. As the Competitive Enterprise Institute's Marc Scribner notes in a sharp piece on the lessons of last week's crash, all that extra money for PTC would have been better spent on improving grade crossings, where on average about 270 people are killed each year. Train derailments, by contrast, are incredibly rare.

So is it possible that if Dianne Feinstein and other lawmakers hadn't pushed the PTC mandate, Amtrak would have gone ahead and installed ATC throughout the Northeast Corridor, and then eight people wouldn't have died last week? If they hadn't mandated PTC, would that extra money have gone to saving lives at grade crossings?

Who knows, but I think counterfactuals of this sort are shallow and unproductive. The only thing we know for sure is that when government officials try and make the world a safer place by fiat it can lead to unintended consequences that get people killed.

I wrote about Amtrak for The Daily Beast back in 2013: "Amtrak Is a Tax-Sucking Behemoth That Deserves to Die."

NEXT: Glenn Garvin on "Secrets, Politics and Torture," a Frontline Documentary on CIA Interrogations

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  1. There’s no limit to claims like this. For instance, if each passenger on an airline had an escape pod, fatalities could be reduced dramatically. Ditto for other kinds of harm if we all had personal defense systems. It just takes some trillions to make these things happen. Damned Republicans!

    1. If every house had PV cells, wind turbines, batteries, and training on how to maintain them, then we’d be fossil free! Probably no more birds too! We found a way to build highways that apparently never need maintenance, so why not this?! Also MOON SHOT.


        That’s the only acceptable answer.

        1. Ever tried to stop a car on glass?


            Didn’t I just say that was the only acceptable answer? Don’t attempt to confuse us with your sorcerer’s ways of science and engineering.

          2. Only a racist mentions friction.

        2. If we housed every single American in a giant building, where they could do everything in their rooms, without leaving, think how much safer that would be!

          1. I’m calling shotgun right now for the bottom bunk.

            1. I wonder if they’ll have those giant moving strips like in The Caves of Steel?

              1. What part of ‘not leaving their rooms’ didn’t register?

                1. I meant moving strips for government officials. They can leave their rooms. After all, who will protect us and keep the economy operating?

          2. not at all….. far too many would go berko from the confinement, and despite the fact no one would EVER think of allowing anything even rem,otely resembling a WEAPON (oh, no, this is You Toke Ee Yah!!!) bare hands and feet (not to mention inane things like bathtubs and bedframes) can easily be employed to create havoc with their neighbours. Safer? Nope. Not unless everyone is also drugged.. which IS a distinct possibility.

        3. Actually this is what you are talking about.

          1. Though at this level we are getting into Nano Tech Science Fiction. Imagine roadz that could produce electricity using both. =)

  2. PTC is a system that uses radio signals and GPS

    So nothing can go wrong can go wrong can go wrong.

    1. “Turn left at the next crossing.”

    2. Couldn’t possiblie.

      1. Huh. That’s the first thing that’s ever gone wrong.

  3. The real discussion should be why the hell should the government force taxpayers to subsidize transportation that they don’t actually want to use? If a rail line is financially viable and cost-effective, it needs no subsidy. If it is not, it should go out of business. Why the fuck is the left so enamored of blowing huge sums of money on 19th century technology?

    1. Afraid of sunk costs?

      1. +1 Iraq

      2. If you love America, you’ll keep throwing money in its hole!

    2. Control of transportation and where it goes provides greater control over where people live, where they shop, etc. We offered the world order!

    3. Because all the cool kids do it? (i.e. Western Europe, Japan, and China)

    4. Because trains are much more efficient than other modes of transportation. Ideally we’d all use trains, and then we could save Mother Earth from the evil combustion engine.

      1. Except we live in a large country with a lot of open space, so trains are not really practical and cost-effective in most areas, now that cars and planes exist.

        1. That’s why people need to be herded into urban areas. Well, one reason. The other is to save the environment from human activity. Ideally we’d all live in cities and use public transportation, and trains in between cities. Except that that would mean all the food would be grown by evil corporations instead of sustainable small farms. Whatever. It’s not like the left is intellectually consistent. Whatever feels right is right, right?

          1. +1 Caves of Steel

        2. There are very few rail lines that are profitable, even in areas that are densely populated. I read a report on high speed rail lines and only two out of hundreds actually turn a profit. One was Paris to Lyon in France and the other was in Japan. A third in Japan broke even.

      2. My Mama ain’t no dirtball, and she doan need no savin’

    5. The real discussion should be why the hell should the government force taxpayers to subsidize transportation anything that they don’t actually want to use

      I don’t drive in NYC, for example. Why should I have to pay for any of the costs associated with it?

    6. Big Railroad?

  4. Or we could just use the tort system to impose penalties on the owners of the rail system for actual damages resulting from accidents. Then the owners would manage the risks appropriately.

    1. No, no, no, we must shield certain evil corporations from liability. And government must be protected, of course, because of its perfect goodness.

    2. Sorta like General Motors, huh?

      1. You mean the UAW, right?

  5. B-b-but… INTENTIONZ!!!!!!!!11!!!

    I wonder how much lobbying the makers of PTC did back in ’08? I’m guessing “a lot”.

    1. Ask DiFi, I’m certain she and her wealthy investor “hubby” (oh, that thought is, well, ….) know all about the lobby and special interest money.

      Another bargain sort of like the body scanners that “just happened to be” lying about in a warehouse ready for deployment, and only lacking a triggering “incident”, which our CIA neatly arranged when they ushered a certain (ahem) “middle eastern” man around standard inspection and verification and identification proceesures at the airport in Amsterdam for a flight bound to the Detroit area…. when the pantybomber made himself known an hour or so before landing in the US. Funny thing, the news went suddenly blank a few days after his “detainment”.. and NO ONE has ever heard of HOW that guy was escorted around all the checks in Amsterdam and aboard the plane…… you mean THAT kind of “lobbying”?

  6. Can someone pass this along for P.M. Links? Or Sugarfree?

    A Federal lawsuit filed Thursday in Orlando alleges that medical diagnostic students at Valencia College were forced to undergo weekly vaginal probes as part of learning the procedure ? and that the college and its employees retaliated against students who complained.

    1. Already covered that one this morning.

      1. One might say the issue was probed

        1. “I think of it more as sliding past a set of drapes.”

  7. Baruch Feigenbaum

    Now that is an awesome name.


    1. His name means “blessing fig tree”. It almost passes the “Could it be used as the name of a level 35 half-elf druid? test”.

      1. Oxymoron, God hates figs

        1. You know how I feel about puns.

          1. Which youtube video was that? ;P

        2. I still want to put that on a sign and hang out at a Westboro protest.

  8. I think DC’s Metro uses some version of ATC. I usually sit in the front car (yes, I have a death wish), and you can hear the beeping telling the operator to slow his ass down.

  9. How about this Proggies? The crash wouldn’t have happened if the ridiculous labor protections that Democrats foisted upon this country which would have protected the driver even if he was found fucking the beheaded corpse of a child in the wheelhouse didn’t create a climate of irresponsibility, dysfunction, and cronyism? Perhaps if the driver had fear that he could actually be fired for his mistakes, he might have paid attention to what he was doing? How do you like them apples?

    1. I do not fully understand, one named HM. But the holy words will be obeyed. I swear it.

      1. The “holy words” being “Blessing fig tree“. I think it summons 1d3 treants per level of the caster.

        1. However, these are uncontrolled and will attack the caster as well as anything else not tree-like in the vicinity.

          1. Sort of like a tax?

    2. Sooo…if we implemented this PTC mumbo-jumbo that directly regulates the speed of the train on every mile of the track, what are the odds that Feinstein and her ilk would support firing all of the Amtrak conductors because, you know, humans are then completely fucking useless in the system?

      1. 0%

        Odds that these towers will require thousands of unionized flunkies to maintain them?

        1. All of the odds. ALL. OF. THEM.

  10. I blame Bush.

  11. Even before the final safety report [for that accident] was released, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) began pushing to mandate automated safety equipment for all large railway systems?Swept up in the emotion, Congress in 2008 failed to seriously consider any solution except PTC. The PTC bill passed October 16, 2008 with limited debate only a month after the crash.

    That this is the cause is unpossible.

    There is no way that a rushed political solution for a non-political problem could possibly be at fault.

    1. As always with Feinstein, follow the money. Look for the lobbyists. Especially from the PTC company/companies.

      1. Oh, for sure. As soon as I heard her name, I immediately thought about which companies her husband owns or invests in.

  12. OT

    Anyone watch Silicon Valley? I’ve caught a couple episodes this season and it strikes me as free market. Two episodes ago had a rant about businesses starting in their garage despite hostile zoning laws were the reason property values were so high in Silicon Valley. Also, the hardware guy Guilfoyle is competent and a prepper so strikes me as the new Ron Swanson.

    1. It’s not so much free market as more from the perspective of the developers, and traditionally developers tend to be more “free market” in that they are talent who are only hurt by regulations and unions and the like.

      I have also seen strains of more liberty-inclined themes on the show but they are 1) secondary to the story and humor, and 2) are probably mostly present because you’d see the same strains in almost any startup, because they all have to deal with the same stifling shit from the government.

      It’s also a great, great show. And their tech and startup accuracy in the writing is amazing. There have been so many times on the show where they will talk tech and I’m sitting there going “this is on point, it’s not embarrassing or stupid”. Plus Amanda Crew is adorable.

      1. not embarrassing or stupid

        That’s a rave review if I’ve ever seen one from you, Epi.

      2. As I recall, Erlich’s rant to the ferret neighbor was free market-tinged.

        1. It was, and like I said, you will see those tinges here and there in the show. But I cannot see or sense any underlying liberty theme. This is entertainment, and they are doing a really good job of it. I guarantee that’s partly because they aren’t trying to push any kind of ideas on anyone. The liberty theme comes from the situation they are in–a startup–more than anything else.

          And remember to sleep dick up.

    2. I believe Mike Judge has a bit of a libertarian lean.

    3. Amazing show. On the free market front, I agree with Epi’s assessment. However, I also thought the meeting between Richard and Gavin (when Gavin offered the buyout) was pretty realistic. Everyone’s “free market” when they are starting their business but once you become the gorilla, you adopt the attitude of “whatever I need to do to keep and expand my share of the market.” The latter is often very NOT free market.

  13. Maybe they just could pay some guy to look through the windshield and adjust the speed of the train according to track conditions.

  14. What news editor would let a phrase like that slip past the red pen?

    Maybe one who was doing his job rather than engaging in mockery?

    1. That said, I agree with the risk/benefit thrust of this article.

  15. Another problem with PTC:…..-rail-plan

    1. “I’m just speechless,” said Grady Cothen, who retired in 2010 from the Federal Railroad Administration as the deputy associate administrator for safety standards. “I didn’t expect this issue to arise.”

      The best and brightest.

    1. I covered that above. 40 minutes before you did. SO THERE.

      1. You two are totes adorbs when you fight.

  16. Ah, C’mon, go ahead and blame DiFi.
    If she’s not responsible for this, there’s plenty more she is responsible for that hasn’t been laid at her feet.

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