More Proof Of America’s Inadequate Infrastructure

The details are still being sorted out on the deadly Amtrak crash that killed at least six people earlier this week and injured 100s more. But what we do know is that the stretch of track where the train derailed did not have the latest automated speed control system. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) board member Robert Sumwalt stated, had the safety system called Positive Train Control (PTC) “been in place, this accident would not have occurred.”

I have frequently addressed the issue of infrastructure spending (see this, this, this, this, this, this and this) as a simple way to improve the standard of living in the United States. But the issue today is about much more than not busting an axle or ruining your set of run flat tires. This is now about basic health and safety.

The NTSB has been pushing for this safety system to be put in place since 1970. That is not a typo, the need for this system has been known for literally 45 years. Following a commuter train(s) head-on collision near Darien, Connecticut, the NTSB began urging the development and implementation of positive train control systems.

The good news is that in 2008, the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA) mandated that Positive Train Control (PTC) be implemented across much of the Nation’s rail industry by December 31, 2015.

The bad news is that the train industry, through the Association of American Railroads, has been lobbying against this. The Unions are no better, fighting implementation for fear it will cost jobs.

It is unlikely that the industry will meet the deadline set 7 years ago.

The NTSB has been exhorting the railway industry to implement these accident prevention systems sooner rather than later. It seems that every time there is a rail accident, they call for faster implementation. For example, see

• Fatal N.Y. train crash avoidable with recommended technology (December 10, 2013)

• Train Sped at 82 M.P.H. Ahead of Curve in Fatal Crash (December 2013)

• NTSB: We Need Automatic Braking on All Trains  (January 2014)

• Blue Line crash shows Chicago Transit Authority should update, add safety systems (April 2015)

As USA Today noted 2 years ago, “Since 2005, the NTSB has investigated 15 train accidents in which 50 people were killed and 942 people were injured. In each case, the board concluded that positive train control would have prevented the accident.”

This is not about technology; it is about money and politics. The railroads don’t want to implement RSIA, and have been dragging their feet. Many have been slow to spend the cash installing these systems.

Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway owns Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad.  Last year, they announced a $200 million capital investment to implement positive train control technology. Perhaps Buffett can shame the rest of the industry into getting this done?

I am constantly surprised by the resistance seen on the issue of maintaining, improving, and where necessary, rebuilding our rails, bridges and highways. It reflects a total lack of faith in our own Society. This pessimism has its roots in a unique combination of government failures and a relentless ideologically driven media that never met a worthwhile government project it could like.

64 percent of Americans do not own a passport. These folks should get one – and see how the rest of the planet gets these things done.

Travel to Asia, and you will see a post war infrastructure that has been consistently maintained, modernized and updated. Whether it is roads or airports or traffic control systems or electrical grid, we in the United States are decade or more behind. If Japan and South Korea can do this, why can’t we?

Do you want to discuss the roads in Germany, in the Netherlands, in Italy? Have you seen the bridges in France and Switzerland? That’s before we discuss the trains, the tunnels the mass transit that moves masses of people around so efficiently.

Why can the rest of the world get these things done, but we cannot? 

You can select any one of a number of events that started Congress’ downhill slide in approval ratings to single digits: Vietnam War to Watergate to Stagflation to huge deficits to Clinton’s Impeachment to the Iraq invasion to Katrina to rampant partisanship to NSA Spying. More than the approval ratings, it is the inability to get much of anything accomplished that is so utterly frustrating.

We are the country that created the internet, landed a man on the moon, helped to defeat the Nazis in World War Two, and yes, created an epic interstate highway system. After a half a century, it is still yielding tremendous economic benefits.

There are certain mega-projects that we cannot accomplish as individuals; it is only through a group effort that we can do these things for ourselves. After all, Democracy is people voting for projects that benefit the common good.

If US trains were modernized, if we had autopilots and modern software, if we included the kind of  safety features that other civilized nations enjoy, this exact accident is much less to have likely to have happened.

Bottom line: We have a terrible safety record on across the board. That’s an infrastructure issue.

We tolerate easily preventable crashes, but fear investing in our own future while borrowing rates are the lowest in several generations. We are cowards, but no worries – the magic of the marketplace will have other less annoyingly myopic nations blow by us soon enough.

It’s a shame the electorate does not have a better lobbyist . . .

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  1. PrahaPartizan commented on May 14

    We can’t have any of these things in our infrastructure because the nation’s government was captured by a neo-Confederate party thirty years ago and they’ve been running a scorched earth policy ever since. All one needs to know about the Confederates and their intellectual heirs is one of the sections from their own Confederate Constitution from Article I, Section 8, which enumerates their Congressional powers:

    (3) To regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes; but neither this, nor any other clause contained in the Constitution, shall ever be construed to delegate the power to Congress to appropriate money for any internal improvement intended to facilitate commerce; except for the purpose of furnishing lights, beacons, and buoys, and other aids to navigation upon the coasts, and the improvement of harbors and the removing of obstructions in river navigation; in all which cases such duties shall be laid on the navigation facilitated thereby as may be necessary to pay the costs and expenses thereof.

    The neo-Confederates don’t believe in internal improvements and they certainly don’t believe they should be made to pay for them, imagining that all of those enhancements over the decades which lifted those back hills dwellers out of poverty and ignorance fell from heaven like magic. Until The Second American Civil War is concluded, we will simply see our nation slip into a banana republic torpor.

    • bigsteve commented on May 14

      The interstate highway system was started under President Eisenhower.The EPA under Nixon. And President Ford sign into law COLAs for Social Security. But after civil rights were passed by President Johnson and a Democratic Congress the old Dixiecrats changed parties and took over the Republican party. Those people have always been sabotaging the Federal Government and keeping it as weak as possible. Unbelievable the party of the Hamilton tradition could be so bent away from it’s historic philosophy. I am an old fashion conservative which fitted in well with Eisenhower’s Republican party. Today I am alienated and disgusted with the GOP.

  2. catman commented on May 14

    Our ideal seems to have devolved into a large automobile with one passenger, a gun in the glove box, and an untreated case of a formerly defeated disease. Freedom, and we voted for it.

  3. wally commented on May 14

    Republican politicians are why we can’t have nice things.

    • Iamthe50percent commented on May 14

      Not just Republicans. Look at Obama’s full court press for TPP which makes unelected corporate councils the supreme law of the land.

  4. rj chicago commented on May 14

    First off:
    @ Wally – I hope that your comment is a snark and not a partisan one. If partisan – shame on you – this problem as Barry is pointing out shows no color stripe – what it shows is the ineptitude of a law making body on both sides that has rendered itself irrelevant when it comes to its primary Constitutional authority – that of protecting the health, safety and welfare of its citizens within a clearly defined sovereign border.

    Second:
    “It’s a shame the electorate does not have a better lobbyist”
    My response to this is two fold – a better lobbyist would be ourselves, the citizens of the US of A, AND
    this presumes that we have an INFORMED electorate….I don’t see either of these happening in my lifetime as we have deluded ourselves into thinking that said lawmaking body above thinks of country first and self last.

    • willid3 commented on May 14

      which they dont. and that has actually been extremely rare in our country since it was founded. it happens. its just not very often

    • end game commented on May 15

      Rj – actually Wally is completely, pointedly spot-on accurate. It’s Republican politicians that have blocked every conceivable infrastructure investment bill for the past six years, in part because of their Day One goal of making the non-white man a one-term president, but mostly because they think always promising tax cuts is the path to a lock on power. You must think we’re stupid if you think you can get away with blaming Democrats for this one.

      But let’s give you a chance: tell us the infrastructure spending bill that Republicans brought yo the floor bur Democrats blocked. If you do, I’ll give you thirty that Democrats proposed but were blocked by Republicans.

      Clock starts now….

  5. lo574 commented on May 14

    o/c not going double the speed limit………..helps.

    • willid3 commented on May 14

      yes. but if the train had automatic braking systems, then it wouldnt have been going that fast. since it wouldnt require the engineer to slow the train down

  6. Slash commented on May 14

    Well, c’mon, America’s wise leaders have more important things to do than help prevent the deadly crumbling of our infrastructure. They have Obamacare to chip away at, as well as women’s right to make their own medical decisions, like adults.

    Why, part of the Texas legislature is busy doing both at the same time (efficient!): https://www.texastribune.org/2015/05/05/senate-approves-abortion-ban-health-plans/

  7. NoKidding commented on May 14

    In 2013 there were 33,000 US automobile deaths, about 90 deaths per day.
    Calously, why are 6 train deaths relevant to the discussion?

    • willid3 commented on May 14

      well unlike automobiles, trains only follow the tracks, and when they crash they do tend to hurt more people. and some times its not just passengers, they can almost wipe out a city.

    • end game commented on May 15

      The highway deaths you cite would be double if automakers and Republicans had their way when they tried to block seat belts, then air bags. And this post is about infrastructure, not just trains. As our 7,000 bridges fall into the rivers and Ito gorges many thousands may die, thanks to Republicans blocking any and all spending on repairs. Think of the trains as a symbol of our infrastructure. The spending has been thwarted by the companies. Which party always favors companies over citizens?

  8. VennData commented on May 14

    NO! ANYTHING TO STOP OBAMA! YOU CAN RELY ON OBAMA TO MAKE THESE DECISIONS!?!

    LOOK AT WHAT A MESS THE WHITE HOUSE IS!!!

    REMEMBER ‘SHOVEL READY?” (I love how the GOP mocked that term. What marketers they are.)

    STOP JADE HELM!!!

  9. 4whatitsworth commented on May 14

    There is no question that we need to increase our infrastructure investment. There are many un safe roadways and transportation corridors in the United States. This said, the engineer who was driving the train was just over 30 years old, probably making over 100K a year and negligently going over 100MPH. Where is the expectation of responsibility and competence? Where is the shame for lack of these traits? Some folks seem to think that no matter what the problem is, more government spending is always the answer. When are we going to talk about organizational and personal responsibility as being essential along with these infrastructure investments?

    • willid3 commented on May 14

      well its like having air planes without an auto pilot. we just need to make sure they are awake all the time.

    • executive beard commented on May 15

      Where did you get the over 100k number? Salary.com states that with 10 to 14 years of experience the median salary is $65,619 with the 25 percentile to 75 percentile being $54,208 to $80,703.

  10. catman commented on May 14

    4etc – Really? Over paid, irresponsible, too much government spending. Nothing new there. See Iraq war, recent financial crisis, bailouts etc. Been snoozing?

    • 4whatitsworth commented on May 14

      Yes I said irresponsible, “asleep at the wheel” if you like, you said over paid.

      I am not for the “nanny state” it seems like we want someone to “wake me up for school”, “bail me out”, “fight my fights”, “listen to my un fair problems” etc.. This attitude is certainly not what built this great country.

      Nothing new, really? This attitude is new, ushered in with the baby boom generation.

    • ilsm commented on May 14

      4whatitsworth,

      The only nanny state in the US, where it is not remiss in spending, is the pentagon where huge outlays for weapons and wars on credit are neglectful of strategy and outcomes.

      How do you go on your “nanny state” rant when a railroad engineer is neglectful. That engineer Is not the only neglectful functionary.

      Look at the maintenance of railroad right of way, negligent! Many tracks are unsafe at any speed worse at excessive speed, they have lost their margins. Look at the article concerning neglect of safety systems.

      The US’ infrastructure has a large percent of highway bridges that are nearing a state of dangerous neglect.

      What does all this to do about a “nanny state”?

      The biggest “nanny state” is run by the pentagon!

      I am a boomer!

    • end game commented on May 15

      Same argument the auto industry and Republicans used to try to stop seat belts and airbags, which will probably save your child’s life at some point.

    • 4whatitsworth commented on May 15

      ilsm, sure cut defense 5 or 10% and use these funds to rebuild our infrastructure.

      As a boomer I trust that you know that the defense industry created telecommunications, gps and the internet so this spending is not with out benefits, in fact most boomers would be lost without the defense industry.

  11. dcg commented on May 14

    in the beginning we had 1 congressperson for 30000 residents, now we have capped the number of congresspersons, so we have 1 per 700,000 or so… the peoples voice is diluted and continues to be so… it’s easier to listen to a few large entrenched status que corporations and perpetual war mongers than to listen to reasonable citizens regarding quality of life for all issues… given the 1 to 30000 original number we would have a few thousand congresspersons… noisy and messy but possibly a more democratic outcome… just thinking…

    • willid3 commented on May 14

      course with the winner take in presidential electors that states have enacted, we also have many states that get ignored because the politicians consider them a lost cause as they cant win the votes. does tend too lend to having more and more radical politicians

  12. Rich in NJ commented on May 14

    What about proposing a compromise that has appeal to both sides?

    For example, approval of the Keystone Pipeline in exchange for infrastructure spending in an amout equal to the most optimistic level of benefits that Keystone proponents believe the pipeline will offer.

    • willid3 commented on May 14

      whats the point of this pipeline? to export oil. its not US oil, so it can be. it wont lower gas prices. and it will get exported cause its going a port city. plus there are those minor problems of it endangering drinking water for a large section of the country. plus endangering agriculture it a large section of the country too. and we have already seen how well the company pushing it will do the job of building it. they have already had to stop work on it because it was defective as built

    • rd commented on May 14

      The Canadians have their own pipeline permitting issues preventing a major profit and jobs opportunity. A pipeline from Alberta to New Brunswick would allow them to refine the oil sands oil there and ship the refined products to the US Eastern Seaboard with some of the shortest ship turnarounds in the world (North Sea oil would probably be shorter). Since the ships would alternate between a US and Canadian port, any tanker in the world could carry the fuel since the Jones Act would not apply, unlike refining oil on the Gulf Coast.

    • willid3 commented on May 14

      i thought the Jones only applied if you were shipping between US ports. cause we have been shipping refined products for some time now

    • rd commented on May 15

      That is correct on the Jones Act. That is why a lot of refined product on the Gulf Coast can’t go to US users. The foreign flagged ships can’t take it to another US port. It has to be exported instead. A New Brunswick refinery refining pipeline fed oil sands would not have that restriction. They could just shuttle back and forth from NB to Atlantic Seaboard ports.

  13. Lyle commented on May 14

    One might go a bit further and say it is the pre-civil war democratic agenda. In particular Andrew Jackson was opposed to internal improvements, witness the Maysville Road Bill. (All be it that the road was in Ky and Ky was the home of his big opponent Henry Clay). I agree that we have an inversion of the parties since the 1960s.

  14. rd commented on May 14

    I can see the lawsuits and criminal charges now for the next train crash that occurs after Dec 31, 2015 if it occurs on a stretch of track without PTC. A corporate board and company executives would have decided to flaunt the law in order to save a buck. That could easily be negligent homicide.

  15. Init4good commented on May 14

    Unless and until the general populace figures out that being “anti-government” is detrimental to one’s own society and lifestyle, nothing will change. Applying the “profit” logic to the public domain, as is now popular, will not and cannot work. It’s foredoomed to failure. You cannot have a healthy private sector without a healthy public sector. One cannot exist without the other. The rhetoric of the business community, largely represented by the Republican party, has spewed anti-govt rhetoric for the last 25 years, and it has been a success. We have starved the beast, and the beast is us.

    ….relentless ideologically driven media that never met a worthwhile government project it could like….

  16. end game commented on May 14

    Barry, this is an epic rant. Few can say it as eloquently as you.

    But you are so diplomatic. “We” can’t get it done? “Congress'” inability to act? Let’s call a spade a spade:

    Republican congressmen and the corporations that bought them won’t let the investments be made. Let’s be quite specific and honest when we talk about needed infrastructure spending: the failures you cite are not because Democratic congressmen aren’t willing. If Democrats controlled both houses, they would have passed a $2 trillion infrastructure modernization program when 10 year Treasury rates were 1.4% and real rates were subzero.

    Enough with the “we”.

  17. dvdpenn commented on May 15

    Disappointing that the article is critical of “unions” specifically (and correctly). But doesn’t reference the Republican opposition to the President’s repeated requests for infrastructure spending. We don’t need “a better lobbyist” – whatever that’s supposed to mean. We need a weaker Congress.

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