Washington State

Would More Infrastructure Spending Have Stopped Yesterday’s Derailment?

President Trump seems to think so.

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Washington derailment
Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA/Newscom

Would more infrastructure spending have prevented yesterday's deadly Amtrak derailment outside DuPont, Washington?

That seems to be Donald Trump's view. The president took to Twitter shortly after the accident—which left at least three dead and sent another 77 to the hospital—to plug his forthcoming infrastructure plan.

"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," Trump tweeted. "Seven trillion dollars spent in the Middle East while our roads, bridges, tunnels, railways (and more) crumble! Not for long!"

The hot take from the president is premature given how little we know about the direct causes of the Amtrak derailment. It is also totally off-base, given that the accident occurred on the first day of service for a new line of track funded entirely by federal stimulus dollars intended to spur high-speed rail development.

The Point Defiance Bypass route—on which yesterday's tragic derailment occurred—was the recipient of $181.7 million in federal grants through the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program (HSIPR).

The funding came from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act signed into law in 2009 by then-President Barack Obama. Obama was a major proponent of stimulus for high-speed rail, his administration allocating some $10.6 billion for nearly 150 HISPR projects.

According a factsheet put out by Obama's Federal Railroad Administration, this spending was a "strategic investment" that "will help ensure America is equipped to win the future with the fastest, safest, and most efficient transportation network in the world." The same factsheet bragged the spending on rail between Portland and Seattle will come with "numerous safety improvements."

Indeed, the Obama Administration was so enthusiastic about high-speed rail that it did not request state or local matching funds for many of it's HISPR projects. This includes the Point Defiance Bypass project, which a Washington Department of Transportation spokesperson told Reason was entirely federally funded.

The bypass was a new 14.5-mile line of track intended to relieve congestion on the current railway lines between Portland and Seattle—which are also trafficked by freight and commuter rail trains—allowing for more daily passenger rail service between the two cities. Amtrak Cascade 501—the train from yesterday's crash—was servicing the inaugural passenger trip of the new line.

So if the story of yesterday's crash is not decrepit infrastructure breaking down and costing lives, what is it?

The only explanation so far is speed. National Transportation Safety Board member Bella Dinh-Zarr said, in a Monday night news conference, the train in question was traveling 80-mph in a 30-mph zone, before it jumped the tracks.

Atlantic and CNN have suggested in pieces today we need to spend more, not on new tracks, but on new safety programs, especially on something known as Positive Train Control or PTC.

PTC is a kind of autopilot for trains, specifically "designed to automatically stop a train before certain accidents caused by human error occur," according to the Association of American Railroads. This includes accidents caused by excessive speed.

The section of track on which yesterday's derailment occurred was equipped with PTC, but was not supposed to be operational until the second quarter of 2018. Congress required railroads to implement PTC in in 2008, but have allowed them until 2018 to get the job done.

Interestingly, one of the criteria for receiving grants under the HSIPR program is that projects encourage the implementation of PTC technology.

So far, the NTSB has been non-committal on whether PTC would have prevented yesterday's derailment, with Dinh-Zarr saying only that "PTC would prevent types of accidents such as this. Whether it will prevent this accident remains to be seen."

With so much still unknown about the derailment, calls for more spending on safety infrastructure or more infrastructure in general are premature. Indeed, one of the positive features of Trump's infrastructure plans (what we know of them anyway) is that they will focus less on white elephant rail projects, and more on necessary infrastructure improvements that can fund its own upgrades through user fees and private partnerships.

Using yesterday's derailment to advocate for such a plan is both tasteless and ill considered.

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87 responses to “Would More Infrastructure Spending Have Stopped Yesterday’s Derailment?

  1. The Point Defiance Bypass route

    The train was defiant ’til the end.

    1. The train was defiant ’til the end.

      That joke was terrible but it’s like some sort of catastrophic phenomenon that I can’t stop staring at.

      1. It’s funny. Your comment mirrors a lot of reviews I used to get for my cam shows.

        1. BUCS’ cam show did involve a large number of mirrors.

          1. And not where you’d expect.

            1. I’m making over $7k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life.

              This is what I do… http://www.onlinecareer10.com

            2. I’m making over $7k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life.

              This is what I do… http://www.onlinecareer10.com

          2. Think this (SFW) applied to certain orifices.

            1. Nasal play was big amongst my viewers.

  2. Atlantic and CNN have suggested in pieces today we need to spend more, not on new tracks, but on new safety programs, especially on something known as Positive Train Control or PTC.

    Sounds like we need to probably kick unions out so that the trains can be more automated.

    1. Sounds like we need to probably kick unions out so that the trains can be more automated.

      Sounds like it’s long past that. Remember, it was the inaugural run! Any normal person from the age of about 15 on would’ve been white-knuckling it the whole way, chanting “Don’t fuck up! Don’t fuck up!”. Instead, we got an amateur with seniority in the union that needs something between an alarm clock and cruise control for trains.

    2. See my comment below. “Investing” in PTC is likely to make safety outcomes worse than not having it.

  3. It is also totally off-base, given that the accident occurred on the first day of service for a new line of track funded entirely by federal stimulus dollars intended to spur high-speed rail development.

    Seems to me that LESS infrastructure spending would have prevented this crash.

    1. If we just stop building things then those things can never grow up to leave us.

      1. Wait, I mean they won’t ever fail us.

      2. Yet more evidence that BUCS is actually a sentient train. Do you know Ringo Starr, by any chance?

    2. You are being facetious, but I suspect it is true. Zeroing out the rail subsidies would encourage other investment. Maybe rail. Maybe autonomous bus systems. Who knows?

      But what we do know is that hundreds of millions of dollars being spent to subsidize rail passengers prevents any other dollars from chasing those passengers.

      1. News reports I saw claimed 81 passengers for the virgin trip; the excitement was palpable, the run will be a real moneymaker/sarc. How many a day, Paul? Double or even triple the fun?

    3. When will we finally have the political courage as a society to stand up to the Mass Transit Lobby and start a National Dialogue on common-sense Infrastructure Control? Certainly, a ban on Assault Railroads would have prevented this tragedy.

      1. It’s actually kinda funny that you say that. I’ve never looked at the statistics but I’m fairly certain that in my burb, and it’s not the only one, train fatalities exceed gun deaths by a wide margin.

        1. But is that still true if you remove train suicides from the equation?!

          /sarc

  4. “PTC would prevent types of accidents such as this. Whether it will prevent this accident remains to be seen.”

    No, I think it is pretty obvious that PTC will not prevent this accident, unless it is capable of affecting things retroactively.

    1. Also, the DC Metro was using a system like that, which malfunctioned and caused a crash that killed 9 people.

      1. Yes, but Metro also spontaneously combusts.

  5. Would more infrastructure spending have prevented yesterday’s deadly Amtrak derailment…

    Yes. Grade the tracks on curves so that high speed trains don’t derail when blowing around them. NASCAR is able to get the angles right on their tracks. You’re smarter than some redneck gearheads, aren’t you, America?

    1. You’re smarter than some redneck gearheads, aren’t you, America?

      In King County it’s considered uncouth to do anything that can be tied to rednecks.

    2. So they are claiming that that section of track was under a high speed rail program. Did you see the picture of that curve? There’s no high-speed anything going around that curve. So what was the point of the high-speed rail subsidy?

      Washington DC really does care about their names. They name a privacy violating, Constitution shredding piece of less legislation the USA Patriot Act. They name a real project that is designed to use existing low speed rail and simply reduce congestion on an existing set of track a High-Speed Rail Project. Now everybody can feel better because we have a High-Speed Rail Project. Politicians have to be the most cynical people on the planet.

      1. I’ve figured out that the names of most legislation are actually the exact opposite of its intent…

    3. And, of course, no one has ever seen a crash at a NASCAR race.

      1. I have yet to see a NASCAR crash that killed 3 drivers, sent every other driver to the hospital along with 22 spectators.

        Ironically, I’d expect them legislate the sport out of existence if such a thing occurred.

  6. My father designed one of the first PTC systems. He is also uniformly negative about PTC and argues that it actually will result in more crashes and safety problems. I’ve spoken to other railroad systems engineers and gotten the same story. It’s a case where Congress responded to a few high-profile crashes in urban areas with a one-size-fits-all solution that saddles railroads with excessive costs that will reduce spending on basic maintenance and safety activities.

  7. One report I heard was that the speed limit was 75 (or something similar) most of the way, then suddenly drops to 30 near where the accident occurred.

    1. That doesn’t make sense-it takes some distance to slow a train down that much. Unless whoever designed the track had no knowledge of basic mechanics.

      1. Yeah, I’m not sure how accurate that report was since I haven’t heard it repeated (I think it was on a local news report), but the speed would make sense if the conductor just didn’t realize he’d entered a lower-speed zone.

  8. “Seven trillion dollars spent in the Middle East while our roads, bridges, tunnels, railways (and more) crumble! Not for long!”

    So now we’ll spend seven trillion dollars in the Middle East AND seven trillion dollars here. Good deal!

    1. That’s just how The Dealmaker makes deals. Compromise, son!

  9. Or, we could hire operators that actually pay attention to what they’re doing.

    Yeah, I know. Too radical and not enough kickbacks.

    1. What’s amusing is that they say our cars can drive themselves soon, yet our trains that are on literal rails still have human drivers.

  10. Of all our modes of transportation, trains, particularly high-speed trains, are probably the most vulnerable to terrorism. You don’t have to board them or get anywhere near them to cause a massive disaster. A few pieces of metal any machinist or blacksmith can put together, placed anywhere on our thousands of miles of track will cause a derailment.

    That’s the infrastructure we need to invest in?

  11. Econazi Germany just had its share of trouble with the new James Taggart Line. The Berlin-Munich Express had to pull over in Nuremberg, plagued by delays and cancellations. Germany is abt the size of Texas and this is like a Dallas-to-Laredo run that had all sorts of trouble. But it has not yet managed anything to compare to the Amtrak body count. Canadian trains, as I recall, work perfectly. But Canada hardly bombs or invades anyone.

    1. Canadian trains … except for that one time, in Quebec.

    2. But it has not yet managed anything to compare to the Amtrak body count.

      In 1998, Germany had an accident with 101 deaths and an additional 100 injuries.

      It was like a comedy of errors:

      German Passenger: “Conductor, a train wheel tore through the floor between me and my wife’s seat and is poking out. The train is swinging wildly left to right. I think we need to pull the emergency brake.”

      Conductor: “Do not pull the emergency brake! Regulations say it is VERBOTEN. I need to go off and investigate whether anything is actually wrong, and get a quorum of conductors. I will be back in like ten minutes.”

      German Passenger: “Oh, OK, if that’s what the regulations say, then I guess I’ll just sit down. Please put down the coffee on the pull-out table next to me instead.”

      Train keeps swinging wildly, eventually strikes the concrete pillars supporting a road overpass. Trains pile up in a zig-zag pattern. The overpass collapses on top of the train. The engine continues on to the next station.

      Proper government procedures were followed!

  12. “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,” Trump tweeted. “Seven trillion dollars spent in the Middle East while our roads, bridges, tunnels, railways (and more) crumble! Not for long!”

    We’ll see how far his infrastructure plan gets in congress. Can’t say I’m in favor of more spending.

    But fer Christ’s sake, can’t you find something better to do than hit refresh all day waiting for Trump to tweet something?

    There are real things happening in the real world–and by “the real world”, I don’t mean Trump’s Twitter feed.

  13. Incidentally, that quip bemoaning spending $7 trillion in the Middle East is an election winner. That was an excellent reason to avoid the Iraq adventure in both 1991 and 2003, and it’s an excellent reason for Trump to have avoided Obama and Hillary’s excellent adventure in Syria.

    Trump collaborating with Putin instead wasn’t even ingenious, it’s just that mere competence looks like genius after the last 16 years of clown show.

    Yeah, I could do without a costly infrastructure plan, but after Obama running foreign policy for the benefit of Moscow’s LGBTQI+ community, refugees from everywhere, or for the benefit of the victims of climate change in India and China? After eight years of Bush Jr. running foreign policy for the benefit Iraqis and Afghans? I’m happy as hell to see a president make the case for the benefit of Americans–if he’s wrong, at least he’s on topic.

    I doubt this infrastructure plan will be much more than a giveaway to swing districts in the swing states he needs to win reelection, but at least we’re having the conversation in terms of what’s in America’s best interests. Even if he counts the border wall as “infrastructure”, that debate should be about what’s in the best interests of the U.S.

    1. Okay, good rhetoric. When does he stop spending the cash in the Middle East then? Seems like he wants to spend more there, and in Korea as well.

  14. Government spending on a government plan to meet government goals on government owned rails used by a quasi-government firm fully managed and regulated by the government to show off how government can get things done. It fails spectacularly at the cost of lives and injuries.

    The lesson learned? Double down on government! Next time it can’t possibly fail!

    1. What’s the government going to do? Go out of business?

    2. Well, whatever they find was the cause, it wasn’t because we don’t spend enough money on government contracts. That’s for sure.

      1. Study will show that more spending is warranted.

  15. Incidentally, I have trouble blaming Trump for latching onto whatever’s in the news to prove that what we need to do just happens to be whatever he’s trying to do at the moment. That’s kinda the way the whole press operates these days.

    They sold their souls a long time ago–it’s all just opinion and commentary now. The press is latching onto whatever is happening in the news as further proof that whatever Trump wants to do is the cause of the problem, too. He might as well take the other side.

    No doubt, the mainstream press will blame this wreck on trump for cost cutting (or deregulation) if they can.

    Given the “unified front” the White House press corps has been confronting Trump with since before he took office, I’m not sure there’s a practical alternative for him.

    https://www.cjr.org/covering_trump/ trump_white_house_press_corps.php

    How should he go over the heads of the mainstream media and undermine their anti-Trump characterization of the universe (and all that happens in it) in 280 characters or less?

    How ’bout we stop paying so much attention to both his tweets and the MSM?

    1. I’ve been ignoring them for a year now. My blood pressure is so much better as a result.

    2. “President Trump seems to think so.”
      No, he probably doesn’t, but the maxim of “not letting a crisis go to waste” is universal when government wants to spend our money.

  16. American engineering is lackluster.

    1. Oh, I think American Engineering is generally quite good. But you would be surprised how often these projects overrule the engineer’s recommendations. The train route gets chosen for political reasons not for technically superior choice. The materials chosen are not the ones technically preferred, but are less expensive initially to compensate for the higher cost of the politically chose route.

      1. Exactly! To call this “high-speed rail” is laughable.

        A speed of 80 miles-per-hour is not “high-speed rail”. Existing Amtrak trains can easily exceed that given properly engineered track.

        A 30-mph speed zone is not “high-speed rail”. High speed rail uses dedicated rights-of-way that are engineered with gentle curves that can be taken at full speed (as opposed to politically-chosen routes),.

        An urban section with level crossings is not “high-speed rail”. Level crossings are an abomination that should have been outlawed 30 years ago. That seven trillion could have bought a lot of overpasses and underpasses.

  17. “Tasteless”? Maybe the worst insult ever of a sitting president-you might be risking another Reason silent subpoena letter.

    “Ill considered”? Why of course- what else would you expect from an uncouth simpleton celebrity na?f?

  18. Clearly the answer is more gun control.

  19. “Tasteless”? Maybe the worst insult ever of a sitting president-you might be risking another Reason silent subpoena letter.

    “Ill considered”? Why of course- what else would you expect from an uncouth simpleton celebrity na?f?

    1. It’s weird. There is a post in between then, and two minutes have passed. This means it wasn’t the squirrels and you actually just posted the same thing twice.

  20. no amount of government spending will protect you from an engineer speeding at over twice the speed limit

    1. I wish they would stop calling these guys engineers. They are train drivers.

      1. They were called engineers before we were called engineers.

        Who you gonna call an engineer, the guy driving a train with a powerful engine, or the guy writing some code?

    2. no amount of government spending will protect you from an engineer speeding at over twice the speed limit

      I’m thinking if you wrapped everyone in wads of cash you could’ve prevented many/most of these deaths/injuries.

      *takes off engineering glove 1 finger at a time and backhands Ron with it*

      1. funny, wish they had a like button

  21. So, less spending on infrastructure would have prevented the accident.

  22. There is a story circulating on Gab that Antifa caused the Olympia derailment on purpose (to stop shipment of chemicals used in fracking) by pouring cement on the tracks, and that they are instructing their members to do the same elsewhere. That’s the story I believe.

    1. ^ Another progressive troll.

  23. There is something glaringly wrong with this story. If it was a “high speed” rail line why was there a curve in it limiting the top speed to 30 MPH???

  24. Positive Train Control doesn’t really work so much as an auto-pilot, more just an auto braking system. It doesn’t operate the locomotive, but applies brakes if the engineer fails to observe speed restrictions or signal indications. PTC has a monitor that shows upcoming speed restrictions at the milepost markers as well as current speed. It also has a lot of annoying flashing lights and beeps if it thinks you can’t slow down quickly enough.

    I agree that “engineer” may be a confusing term, but they bristle at being called “drivers”. Oddly enough, “hog head” or “hogger” is quite acceptable.

  25. Accidents like this are usually caused by some ignorant union employee. If we rid ourselves of organized labor, we be far better off.

  26. No, but I’m pretty sure it could have been avoided by less infrastructure spending. Like $0 for trains.

  27. We have self driving cars but we can’t put a gps on a train to enforce speed limits?

    1. No, we can’t. That’s a union job, and union jobs cannot be automated away. It’s a fundamental law of the kind of people who advocate public transportation.

  28. This Just In: a train wreck in the People’s State of Germany just killed eight people.

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