Last week I received two pieces of news about Amtrak from different e-mail newsletters I subscribe to. The first concerned the derailment of a passenger train north of St. Louis, Missouri (MO). The second concerned Amtak’s plans to use federal economic stimulus money and some of its own funds to improve tracks and switches at selected stations, replace nearly 200,000 wooden and concrete crossties, and repair and replace bridges along its lines.
Even though the cause of the derailment outside of St. Louis in which nine people were injured was a collision with a truck on the tracks, the news of the derailment and the planned track repairs and upgrades are inextricably linked. Eighteen of the 28 of the Amtrak derailments reported to the Federal Railroad Administration during 2009 were caused by track problems. Another seven derailments resulted from human errors such as failure to use handbrakes appropriately and disregarding switching signals or procedures.
The track problems ranged from broken switches to rail gauges that had widened or narrowed because crossties broke or became warped. Derailments often cause significant property damage, injuries and deaths. Eliminating mechanical causes for derailments needs to be a priority. Rail operators have a duty to keep their tracks in proper repair and working order, especially as they expand high-speed train routes. Trains are difficult to stop and control at any speed, and these difficulties increase exponentially as trains surpass 100 mph.
I’m happy to see that Amtrak is taking advantage of its federal windfall to meet this responsibility to ensure the safety of its tracks. I hope that the company will keep fixing its tracks at the top of its to-do list each year and that other rail operators such as CSX, Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Norfolk Southern do the same.