Roughly six hours into a three-hour Amtrak trip between the nation’s capital and New York City last summer – with hundreds of passengers trapped somewhere between Delaware and New Jersey – things got weird.
A rainstorm had apparently knocked out signals around Philadelphia the Friday of Independence Day weekend, causing a backlog of trains that stretched for miles and extending the trip to Penn Station for at least one train to more than eight hours.
This theater of the absurd captured many of Amtrak’s woes: The system is old and hosts unreliable infrastructure, and has been criticized for providing sluggish service, limited access to information and few amenities. Plus, some of its ticket prices could make even scalpers blush.
The most recent example of Amtrak's issues, of course, came Tuesday night, when Northeast Regional Train 188 from Washington to New York derailed after barreling into a steep curve in Philadelphia at more than twice the track speed limit. Eight people died in the wreck and more than 200 were injured.
A federal official investigating the crash told reporters the next day that “positive train control,” a computerized system that uses radio signals, GPS and other technologies to slow speeding trains, had not been installed on the section of track where the crash occurred. That same day, even as emergency workers combed through the wreckage, the House Appropriations Committee voted 30 to 21 to slash Amtrak funding by about $260 million.
Democrats lambasted the decision, declaring it the latest and most glaring example of how “Republicans have been very much against Amtrak for a very long time,” in the words of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Yet on Thursday, it came out that positive train control had been installed where the train derailed, but had not been turned on following delays related to obtaining the necessary radio bandwidth and testing the technology.
“The tracks had PTC, the train had PTC,” says Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., an Appropriations Committee member who voted for the Amtrak funding cut. Money, he continued, “is not the issue.”
So what is? And how safe is Amtrak, really? Moreover, why is its service record – in terms of speed, timeliness, comfort and price – and perception among the public seemingly so abysmal compared to the glimmering rail systems elsewhere in the world, including in Europe, Japan and even Russia.
U.S. News spoke with several experts to find out.
On the international stage, Amtrak lags far behind other major rail services in Europe and Japan when it comes to fully implementing automated controls and breaking, advanced warning and signaling systems, and other safety measures.
Even though "we do have in place a safety system that should be reasonably viable," says James Peoples, an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, "we do not compare favorably to Japan and France right now."
The issues, instead, lie in passengers' discomfort with the idea of no human being at the helm and in labor relations, as unions fear computer-controlled trains will eventually eliminate or sharply reduce the need for train engineers.
“Which will get here first? The driverless trains or the driverless cars? And my guess is driverless cars are going to come first, and then when people are comfortable in certain situations with having automated operation of cars, that will inform the decision on trains,” Boyer says.
So What About Funding?
This, of course, is the big question. And a look at the stark differences between certain Amtrak routes may help provide a path forward.
For example, in fiscal year 2012, Acela Express and Northeast Regional trains – operating in the Northeast Corridor – brought in $289 million for Amtrak. Other routes, many of them covering longer distances, accounted for a combined loss of $760 million, according to an MIT report.
“Japan is a small country. Europe is relatively small to the United States on most of its national train routes,” Harris says. “With any given route, there is no expanse like there is with some of the long-distance trains in the United States – you can’t replace it with air service.”
“Chicago to St. Louis – give me a break,” says Ian Savage, a professor at Northwestern University who specializes in urban public transportation. “Why do we need a high-speed train zipping through St. Louis? First of all, no one wants to go to St. Louis. And second, if we did, we’d go to Midway Airport and buy a ticket on Southwest Airlines, and it’d be a cheaper price.”
Shaking up Amtrak’s budget, Savage and others say, could be just the thing the rail system needs to eliminate lines that haven’t made fiscal or travel sense since World War II.
“Getting rejected by Congress might be the best thing for rail in the Northeast,” says David Levinson, a transportation engineering professor at the University of Minnesota. “It would have a short-term disruptive effect unless something else is put in place,” he allows, but “for real change, you have to change the governance: who’s getting the money, who’s spending the money, how much they’re getting.”
Yet eliminating all but the profitable or near-profitable lines does raise at least one philosophical issue: “If people from all over the country are contributing tax dollars to this, you could see why people want service,” Savage says.
Amtrak, however, would hardly be the only example of a niche industry – think corn growers – that gets financial support from far-flung taxpayers. Plus, effective regional rail can produce benefits that ripple across the broader economy.
“Investing in good public transportation has enabled cities to attract the young, technologically sophisticated populations,” Boyer says.
Even the GOP congressmen who voted to cut Amtrak funding acknowledge a need for some amount of federal support – U.S. drivers and especially truck drivers, after all, pay only a fraction of the cost for maintaining federal highways.
“I am not in the school that Amtrak cannot operate without federal funds. I understand that an interregional rail system will require some level of subsidy, and I don’t expect the whole system to pay for itself,” says Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa. “But there are questions: Many of the routes outside the Northeast Corridor just candidly are not very viable.”
But at least for now, determining how much of a federal infusion the railroad company should receive is stuck in gridlock – something many Amtrak passengers are all too familiar with.