WASHINGTON, December 25, 2017: The Washington State Amtrak derailment in Washington state, killing least three people and injuring more than 100, was easily avoidable. The crash of the train, traveling from Seattle to Portland, was due to the engineer traveling at twice the speed limit. When it reached a bridge over a busy highway, the train jumps the track and lands on the road.
“Preliminary indications are that the train was traveling 80 miles per hour in a 30-mile per hour track,” said the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
Amtrak 188 near Philadelphia
This crash was reminiscent of the night in May 2015 when Amtrak 188 derailed near Philadelphia. That crash was the result of entering a sweeping curve at 100 miles an hour. Eight people died.
Joshua Gotbaum, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, recalls:
“My friends started calling as soon as the news broke…I was one of the ‘lucky ones’; unlike the woman right behind me, the midshipman two rows ahead and six others, I lived. I ‘only’ had scratched corneas, broken ribs, and a damaged knee.”
Commuter train collision with Union Pacific freight locomotive
In 2008, a commuter train and a Union Pacific freight locomotive collided, killing 25 people and injuring 135 in Chatsworth, California. Again, the cause was speeding.
Railroad lobbying stops safety Positive Train Control measures
Congress previously mandated that all railroads have positive train control (PTC) systems installed by 2015. PTC safety systems could have prevented the above accidents by automatically slowing down the trains. In both Philadelphia and Washington state, the PTC system had already been installed on the tracks, but they had not been turned on yet. Congress had extended the deadline: Amtrak lobbyist fought to save their clients money.
The lobbyists’ petition to Congress to delay the 2015 deadline had lawmakers preparing to extend it to 2020. Then there was the 2015 Amtrak crash in Philadelphia. They finally settled on a new deadline of Dec. 31, 2018. But with an additional two-year extension.
President Obama, who vowed to end lobby influence over laws, signed the extension into law in October 2015
The two members of Congress behind the deadline extension, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA) and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), who introduced the PTC bill, are the top two recipients of political campaign contributions from the railroad industry in 2016, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Amtrak profits over safety
Safety seems not to be a priority for Amtrak or Congress. The latest crash reinforces the view that the railroad is skimping on safety, Last year, one of its trains slammed into a piece of equipment in Chester, Pa. killing two workers on the tracks. In a report on that accident, Robert L. Sumwalt, the chairman of the safety board, said,
“Amtrak’s safety culture is failing, and is primed to fail again until and unless Amtrak changes the way it practices safety management.”
Amtrak lobbyist contributions to Congress
Congress has received $56 million in campaign contributions from the railroads since 1990. NTSB member Bella Dinh-Zarr, says:
“The shameful part, the disappointing part, is that positive train control should have been implemented nationwide long ago, and it hasn’t. That’s one reason people have been losing their lives.”
Deborah A.P. Hersman, former NTSB chairman and now head of the National Safety Council, notes:
“This PTC technology is proven. It can prevent collisions. And each year we delay the mandate to put it on these routes is another year that passengers and communities are at risk.”
National Transportation Safety Board: 45-year advocate of PTC
The NTSB has been promoting PTC for 45 years. The lobbying of the railroads and the millions they have given to politicians have successfully prevented the implementation of PTC technology.
Joshua Gotbaum, who survived the Philadelphia crash, points out that the railroads have used their contributions to Congress to aid them in other ways as well, He writes:
“The first thing Amtrak Cascades 501 victims and their families will likely learn is that this accident didn’t have to happen. But the bad news doesn’t stop there, because in 1997, Congress also decided to cap at $200 million the total compensation that Amtrak and other passenger railroads must pay when their negligence leads to an accident. This means that the costs of major accidents are sometimes borne not by the negligent railroad but by the victims. One judge applying this cruel law in another case, said, ‘There just wasn’t enough money…what was given to one victim, had to be taken from another.’ He described the process as a daily exercise in ‘Sophie’s Choice.'”
The best Congress money can buy
It has often been said that we have the best Congress money can buy. Unfortunately, money in politics is greater than ever before. Those who contribute large sums to politicians, such as the railroads, want something in return. In their case, it was putting off as long as possible necessary, and costly, safety regulations. They certainly got their money’s worth. This is part of crony capitalism at work.
Wall Street contributes millions to both parties then when banks fail and investment firms go bankrupt members of Congress repay their largesse by bailing them out with taxpayer funds. The same is true for a variety of industries, which are aided in many different ways.
Why else would they contribute huge sums to both parties? No matter which party is in power, they can receive the policies they have purchased.
Eliminating lobbyist influence on Congress
In the Citizens United decision, a Supreme Court which has been characterized as “conservative,” eliminated limits on money in politics. Few may remember, but those who led the post-World War II conservative movement believed in limited government and balanced budgets and opposed the influence of money in politics.
Sen Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) says,
“Our nation is facing a crisis in liberty if we do not control campaign expenditures. We must prove that elective office is not for sale. We must convince the public that elected officials are what James Madison intended us to be, agents of the sovereign people, not the hired hands of the rich givers or what Madison called factions.”
On another occasion, says Sen. Goldwater:
“Senators and representatives, faced incessantly with the need to raise ever more funds to fuel their campaigns,, can scarcely avoid weighing every decision against the question, ‘How will this influence my fundraising?’ Rather than, ‘How will this influence the national interest?'”
When considering the recent deaths in Washington state we must ask who really bears responsibility. The railroads, lobbyists and a Congress responsive to money, seem to have produced this result. If Congress was not eager for ever more money from the railroads, these crashes would have been easily avoidable.