Fatal train accident highlights need for rail improvements

Fatal train accident highlights need for rail improvements
Emergency workers and Amtrak personnel inspect a derailed Amtrak train in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

WASHINGTON - In America, where car culture has ruled for generations, train travel is the neglected cousin, burdened with ageing equipment and insufficient funding -- conditions uncomfortably in the spotlight after a fatal train accident Tuesday near Philadelphia.

Members of Congress held hearings Wednesday studying the prospects for better and safer rail travel following the crash which killed at least six people and left more than 200 injured.

"The United States seems to always stop short of making the investments needed in rail to create a world-class train system," Joseph Schwieterman, a professor at DePaul University in Chicago, told AFP.

"This accident is a wake-up call that we can't keep shortchanging the system," added Schwieterman, a transport specialist and author of a book about US trains.

It remained unclear exactly what caused the train operated by public railway service Amtrak to crash Tuesday night along the Northeast Corridor linking the capital Washington to Philadelphia, New York and Boston.

The track is one of the nation's most heavily-travelled routes. But rail infrastructure here is woefully old and even neglected, at least when compared with other forms of transportation such as automobile or plane travel.

Yet train demand remains "strong," with some 31 million passengers riding Amtrak in fiscal year 2014 across its 35,000 kilometer (21,700-mile) network, an increase in ridership over the previous year, the company reported.

More than a third of those passengers travelled the Northeast corridor impacted by Tuesday's accident.

Amtrak said investments "must be made" in key locations such as tracks, tunnels and bridges.

"Otherwise, we face a future with increased infrastructure-related service disruptions and delays that will hurt local and regional economies and drive passengers away," Amtrak chief executive Joe Boardman said in a financial report.

Budget slash looms 

Amtrak's budget was coincidentally under debate in Congress Wednesday, where Republicans and Democrats argued over funding for the company.

The Republican majority, in its transportation funding bill for 2016, has proposed a budget cut of 18 per cent for Amtrak, down to US$1.139 billion (S$1.5 billion) from US$1.4 billion the previous year.

"I hope we can keep the accident in mind to serve as a reminder of the importance of safety programs that are underfunded in this bill," House Democrat Nita Lowey fumed.

Transportation Committee chairman Bill Shuster from Pennsylvania appeared aware of the veiled suggestions that funding shortfalls may have contributed to the conditions surrounding what he called Tuesday's "horrific" accident.

"It's critical we find out exactly what happened up there and make sure that we take the appropriate response to make sure it doesn't happen again," he said.

Another lawmaker, Jeff Denham, noted that railroads carry 40 per cent of all freight volume, and that "our freight rail system is the envy of the world."

Beyond the Philadelphia disaster, trains between Washington and New York are notoriously costly, relatively slow, and routinely behind schedule due to multiple hiccups, even as other US regions remain woefully underserved by rail.

A National Journal survey from April quoted rail afficionado Michael Dukakis, a former Amtrak board member and one-time White House hopeful, as stating "if you ever go to Japan, ride the trains and weep" at the disparity in the two nation's rail systems.

Maite Pena Alcaraz, a transport researcher at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pointed to several studies "that explain that we would need to invest around $51.9 billion from 2010 to 2030 just to bring the Northeast Corridor to a state of good repair."

"The rail network need some funds, but even more importantly, it needs a funding programme," she added.

Infrastructure investment takes years to plan out, and yet "right now Amtrak does not know how much funding they will have in two years."

US Senator Robert Menendez called for a 21st Century investment strategy that assures safer railways and other transport networks.

"Luck should not be America's transportation policy," he said.

The state of American railways are a far cry from the past legend of the American West, where westward expansion progressed at the pace of rail line construction.

"America is a country that was built with railroads," said Tom Zoellner, who authored a book on the great rail lines of the world.

"We have allowed our railroads to wither to a point where they are merely a curiosity instead of a robust method of transportation."

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