Politics & Policy

Transport Troubles

Amtrak puts passenger safety at risk.

The most refreshing federal transport agenda to appear in years is the Bush administration’s plan to eliminate all operating subsidies for Amtrak. Spending restraint is overdue because Amtrak continues to hemorrhage taxpayers’ dollars by perpetuating costly long-distance trains that serve few people. Fortunately, the administration will commit $360 million to maintain Amtrak’s busiest route–the Boston-New York-Washington line–that serves nearly half of all Amtrak riders and the country’s most-used commuter trains.

But a fundamental change needs to occur. We must end Amtrak’s ownership of the busy line in the northeast.

As the debate heats up, let’s squarely address how Amtrak has botched its role in improving critical infrastructure. For decades Amtrak has spent billions of dollars in public funds on lightly used trains and capital projects with a zero rate of return on investment while under-investing in the busy Boston-Washington route. To be specific, Amtrak’s poor stewardship of property means its Manhattan tunnels present great passenger risks during an accident, fire, or terrorist attack–so much so that I tell my family not to ride Amtrak to or through New York. Flying is safer.

The tunnel hazards include lack of standpipes for bringing water to a fire in parts of the tunnels, reliance on dry chemical extinguishers that are ineffective in a large blaze, ventilation systems that can’t remove smoke or heat, and inadequate exits that consist of steep spiral staircases rising as high as 90 feet, or ten flights of stairs.

These stairways were not designed as emergency exits, but could attract passengers trapped in a desperate situation. The staircases hinder evacuation and jeopardize lives because they are wide enough for only one person, meaning that a few passengers fleeing up the stairs block responding emergency personnel from going down into the tunnels.

The recent deadly train accident in Glendale, California, where a Metrolink commuter train hit an SUV parked on the tracks illustrates the urgent need for first responders to arrive and quickly evacuate passengers.

Three Amtrak incidents last year are cause for alarm and point to challenges in safely evacuating passengers.

In April, a slow-moving Amtrak train rammed a Long Island Rail Road train, injuring about 130 commuters. Although the accident occurred near Penn Station, easing evacuation, it still took two hours to transfer lightly injured commuters to hospitals.

Last October, in Port Clinton, Ohio, an Amtrak car caught fire. The Amtrak crew shunted it to a sidetrack and along with passengers left safely with the rest of the train, but the blaze continued for six hours. The fire was “hard to get at,” said Sam Conte, the town’s assistant fire chief. “It’s got a double ceiling, and it’s all metal.” Similar cars run through New York’s tunnels, which have no convenient sidetracks.

In a “small event” on September 27, an electrical fire filled an Amtrak tunnel in New York with thick smoke, impeding the efforts of 150 firefighters and disrupting LIRR (the nation’s most-used passenger railroad), New Jersey Transit, and Amtrak operations and creating delays through the next morning.

What about a “major event”? Jack Riley, a RAND Corporation public-safety expert, has warned Congress that little is known about how long it might take to restart a rail system in the aftermath of an attack similar to that of September 11.

Between 1998 and 2004, terrorist attacks on 190 railroad and rail transit systems worldwide resulted in 631 deaths and several thousand injuries. Weapons included bombs, which caused mayhem on Madrid’s commuter trains. Last year, federal officials investigated suspected surveillance along rail lines, with some intelligence suggesting an attack on a rail “choke point” in the Northeast.

Responsibility for terrorist acts must be placed on terrorists themselves, but tunnel safety hazards are exacerbated because Amtrak has routinely failed to complete upgrades, demonstrating a reckless disregard for public safety. In 1976, when taking tunnel ownership, Amtrak knew about the abysmal conditions. Nonetheless, it funded low-potential projects on lightly used lines while under-investing in its most intensely used and most dangerous assets in the Northeast.

Kenneth Mead, U.S. Department of Transportation inspector general, has called Amtrak’s asset policies a “clarion call.” It is unacceptable to budget millions of capital dollars to repair long-distance sleeper cars and little to refurbish deteriorating fixed assets, he said, adding that Amtrak’s deferral of critical work “brings Amtrak closer to a major point of failure on the system but no one knows where or when such a failure will occur.”

Amtrak defends itself by citing a recent $126.6 million contract with the Swedish construction firm Skanska AB to upgrade the tunnels by 2009. But Amtrak should have done this long ago. If there is a hero here, it’s again the Bush administration, which forced the contract by persuading Congress to earmark funds for tunnel safety and to stop Amtrak from diverting appropriations to frivolous purposes (an inexcusable hallmark, by the way, of the Clinton administration). In short, President Bush is a far better guardian of railroad-passenger safety than is Amtrak itself.

Amtrak Reform Council member Wendell Cox believes in making the Northeast’s rail line independent so that the region’s needs can be separated from Amtrak’s habit of squandering money on non-marketable routes in states like Texas (where about 400 people statewide board Amtrak each day) while under-funding New York (where a half-million passengers pass through the tunnels every weekday).

It is time to create a regional agency controlled by the affected states to own Amtrak’s Boston-Washington line. Another option is to transfer tunnel ownership to commuter systems. Some legislators in Albany believe the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which has earmarked $220 million for tunnel upgrades, ought to own the East River tunnels used by Long Island commuters. Also, title to the tunnels under the Hudson River could be given to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Amtrak has ill-spent $30 billion in direct federal and state subsides with no apparent pangs of conscience. The railroad deserves no more money. Continued federal subsidies should be predicated on transferring Amtrak’s tunnels, and preferably the entire Boston-Washington line, to an agency that will make safety a top priority for commuters and intercity travelers.

Joseph Vranich is the author of End of the Line: The Failure of Amtrak Reform and the Future of America’s Passenger Trains published by AEI Press. He has served as a public affairs spokesman for Amtrak, president of the High Speed Rail Association, and member of the Amtrak Reform Council.

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