Trains

Virginia Rail Crash Highlights Media, Government's Lopsided Approach to Rail Safety

Spectacular but rare accidents receive the bulk of the attention.

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Rail crossing
Richair/Dreamstime.com

An iron law of safety hysteria is that it is drawn to incredibly rare and spectacular events while ignoring far more common causes of death and injury. Nothing illustrates this better than the media's drastically different treatment of two recent high-profile Amtrak accidents.

On Wednesday, a chartered Amtrak train carrying a large number of Republican congressmen hit a garbage truck in Virginia, killing the driver and seriously injuring the truck's passenger.

The media certainly covered the accident: Cable news devoted a healthy amount of airtime to the crash, and articles about it appeared in The Washington Post and The New York Times. But that was because the lawmakers were present. Remarkably little of the coverage addressed either the cause of the crash or how it could be prevented. (The Wall Street Journal was a notable exception.)

Contrast this with CNN's coverage of an Amtrak derailment outside Seattle in December, which killed three people. Though this kind of derailment death is exceedingly rare—it accounts for about one percent of all American rail deaths in 2016—the network dedicated an article and multiple news segments to how such a derailment could have been prevented with staggeringly expensive "positive train control" (PTC) technology. This wasn't unusual: That technological fix was the driving theme of most reports on the accident.

Meanwhile, a third of railroad deaths are caused by accidents at highway-railway crossings. According to the Federal Rail Administration (FRA), 777 people were killed in rail incidents in 2016, of whom 260 died at highway grade crossings like the Virginia crash. Another 509—mostly trespassers—were killed in "other events." (The Research and Innovative Technology Administration puts the number slightly higher. The FRA number also does not count the roughly 255 people who committed suicide via train in 2016.)

Try to remember the last highway-railway crossing death that attracted a ton of national media coverage without a trainful of Republican legislators being involved.

The misplaced media focus has been matched by a misplaced policy focus. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao identified PTC implementation as a top safety priority for 2018 in a letter to railroad executives. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) has introduced a bill that would require PTC to be installed on all rail tracks in the country by the end of the year, and would provide $2.5 billion to get the job done.

That's about 10 times the $235 million federal appropriation being made to eliminate hazards at railway-highway crossings. The freight and passenger rail lines have collectively spent some $11.5 billion implementing PTC since Congress first mandated the technology in 2008.

This is not to say that PTC has no value. The technology really does work. But every dollar spent implementing positive train control is a dollar not spent addressing far more common causes of rail fatalities, which are also far cheaper to fix. Installing double-arm crossing guards at highway-railway intersections could go a long way toward preventing vehicle collisions. Fencing off more miles of track would cut down on trespasser deaths.

The more common a type of accident is, the more the press and the politicians shrug it off as just a matter of course. The more unusual or shocking an accident, the more airtime and federal dollars are spent puzzling about how to make sure it never happens again.

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  1. Reason Staff:
    have you not seen Idiocracy? Did you not know that all people like to see train wrecks, quite actually.

    We are so far beyond expecting any form of civil society out of the average American. The numbers are against those of us that appreciate decorum, dignity, intelligence, and decency.
    When the press and these elected scum all display the maturity of petty 12 year old punks or your average professional athlete, the rest of society will continue to slide down the slope.

    Concentrate your commentaries on what is left of capitalism, how technology will save us all by the deflationary effect it is having on everything, and how we can re-educate the next 100 years as all generations alive today are virtually screwed.

  2. This is no different then my aunt not letting my cousin walk 3 blocks to school when he was in middle school because of stranger danger etc…

    Despite him actually being safer waking to school then as a passanger in a car

  3. Fences? Double-arm crossing guards? Might be helpful, I suppose, but it would be more efficient to simply spread the word: Railroads tracks are no place to screw around, ever.

    1. As I understand it if a railroad builds a fence and trespassers cut holes in it, crawl through, and get themselves killed the railroad is responsible. If they never build a fence at all the trespassers are responsible. This came up as a local high school is right on a busy train line and the students were cutting across tracks, using bolt cutters as necessary.

  4. One of the easier fixes to a large part of the problem of grade-level crossing deaths is to stop feeling sorry for dumb fucks who don’t have a clue about physics, especially as physics relates to a hundred thousand tons of rolling steel meeting a mere couple tons of stationary steel. If you can’t intuitively grasp the bug meets windshield concept and have some respect for it, I don’t see why I should waste my time or money trying to protect you from yourself.

    Once we fix that lack of education, maybe we can move on to the concept of kinetic energy, with an emphasis on how it relates to you slamming on your brakes right after you zipped across three lanes of traffic at 90 mph to get 12 feet in front of that eighteen-wheeler doing 55 in the far right lane.

    1. “The train always wins”, yes.

  5. PTC is, in some cases, being pushed to replace existing safety systems that work fine and have cost a lot of money already.

    1. And?

      /PTC contractor

  6. All local news is of national interest, if only to national publications. I personally couldn’t give two shits about a rail crash outside my local area, about hurricanes 3000 miles away, or corruption in Chicago and New Joisey. The only non-local news which matters to most people is truly national — what wars have we started, how much are taxes, who is on the Supreme Court, what new bullshit the EPA is going to inflict on me.

    But local news is already known by the locals, so newspapers and other advertiser-driven media have no choice but to dip into national shocks to gin up a few more eyeballs.

  7. Though this kind of derailment death is exceedingly rare?it accounts for about one percent of all American rail deaths in 2016?the network dedicated an article and multiple news segments to how such a derailment could have been prevented with staggeringly expensive “positive train control” (PTC) technology. This wasn’t unusual: That technological fix was the driving theme of most reports on the accident.

    True.

    But “driver runs train off track” is something nobody else could prevent; his own-goal killed other people.

    This truck hit by a train? Well, so far, I’ve heard no suggestion of any cause other than the one that’s about 99% of “train hits vehicle” cases – the truck presumably ignored signals and tried to beat the train or got stopped on the track because not paying attention to ability to clear it.

    And that’s not news.

  8. Used to work with trains. Always remember an old timer discussing a train vs car accident. In the break room, while studying his thumb with great intensity, he said, “You can’t be that train. You simply can’t beat that train.”

  9. Thats a sad news to everyone, no one expects to face such a situation. We can now use https://bigoliveapk.net/ to check the live broadcasting videos. Thank you so much for sharing this information.

  10. The folks who claim putting us all in self-driving cars will be no big technical or financial deal, think that locomotive speed control is “staggeringly expensive”.

  11. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) has introduced a bill that would require PTC to be installed on all rail tracks in the country by the end of the year, and would provide $2.5 billion to get the job done.

    Introduced a bill that would require it? All railroads (well, all passenger railroads, plus all major freight railroads that ever transport any poisonous gas, which I think is all of them) are already required to implement PTC on all their tracks by the end of this year, unless they apply for and receive a waiver that lets them extend the deadline to the end of 2020. The deadline was supposed to be the end of 2015, but it just wasn’t physically possible to meet it, so it was extended at the last minute.

    https://www.fra.dot.gov/ptc

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  13. When the press and these elected scum all display the maturity of petty 12 year old punks or your average professional athlete, the rest of society will continue to slide down the slope. but it just wasn’t physically possible to meet it, so it was extended at the last minute. KingRoot is posted in Tools category and is developed by KingRoot Studio. The average rating is 3.8 out of 5 stars on our website. However, this app was rated 4.2 out of 5 stars according to different rating platforms download at https://kingrootapkapp.com/

  14. Human life is the most important. Railway-highway crossings are always dangerous when training coming. Government should consider build more crossover bridge or tunnel. Ensure every project is safe, and material testing must be done, such as concrete testing, cement testing, steel bar tensile. Every tunnel, bridge, railway, highway is needed for testing.

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