Economy

Amtrak Philadelphia crash highlights neglect of busy rail corridor

In an aerial photo, emergency personnel work at the scene of a deadly train wreck, Wednesday, May 13, 2015, in Philadelphia, after a fatal Amtrak derailment Tuesday night, in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia.
In an aerial photo, emergency personnel work at the scene of a deadly train wreck, Wednesday, May 13, 2015, in Philadelphia, after a fatal Amtrak derailment Tuesday night, in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia. AP

The derailment of an Amtrak train in Philadelphia on Tuesday night renewed attention to the safety and infrastructure challenges facing the nation’s busiest passenger rail corridor.

As investigators began reviewing the data from the locomotive event recorder and collecting other key pieces of evidence to determine the cause of the derailment, information emerged Wednesday that the train had been traveling around a sharp curve at twice the posted speed when it left the tracks.

The accident coincided with a debate in Washington over funding for Amtrak. On Wednesday, the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee voted to cut Amtrak’s annual subsidy from $1.4 billion to $1.1 billion. Further, Amtrak’s authorizing legislation expired two years ago and hasn’t been renewed.

Congress funds Amtrak from year to year, making it difficult for the railroad to make needed improvements to aging bridges and tunnels and to the systems that power the trains and keep them out of one another’s way.

“Amtrak’s living on a shoestring,” said Steve Ditmeyer, a former associate administrator for research and development at the Federal Railroad Administration. “Some things are falling through the cracks.”

The seven-car train traveling from Washington to New York derailed after 9 p.m. EDT Tuesday in Northeast Philadelphia. Of the 238 passengers and five crew members on board, seven were confirmed dead Wednesday by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter.

The fatalities included a U.S. naval midshipman and an employee of The Associated Press. The chief executive of an online startup company was missing.

As seen from TV news footage and pictures posted to social media, pieces of the train were strewed askew the track, which bends in a sharp curve in Northeast Philadelphia. Part of the train overturned, and one car was reduced to a twisted heap of shredded metal.

“It’s a devastating scene,” National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said Wednesday morning.

The NTSB confirmed Wednesday afternoon that the train had approached the location of the accident, Frankford Junction, at more than 100 mph. The speed limit there is 50 mph.

Ditmeyer said a Northeast Corridor improvement project in the late 1970s and early 1980s was supposed to straighten out curves, but that got cut from the budget.

Amtrak’s flagship Acela Express has a top speed of 150 mph but rarely reaches it. Numerous curves, bridges and tunnels restrict the speed of all trains on the Northeast Corridor. The speed limit through two tunnels under Baltimore, built in the 1870s, is 30 mph.

According to a five-year plan for the Northeast Corridor published last month, half the line’s bridges were built between 1900 and 1920, and it would take 300 years to replace them at current funding levels.

“These are ancient things,” Ditmeyer said. “They’re well over a hundred years old. They are decaying.”

The twin tunnels under the Hudson River in New York, built in 1910, sustained heavy flood damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Tens of thousands of commuters depend on them every day, and Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman has said they need to be replaced soon.

“I don’t know if it’s seven (years). I don’t know if it’s four or less,” Boardman said in an interview last year. “We’ve got to do it. The nation has to do it. We have to find the money.”

Amtrak is in the process of installing a collision-avoidance system by year’s end on the Boston-to-Washington Northeast Corridor. The system, called positive train control, is designed to prevent trains from exceeding speed limits as they approach curves.

Ditmeyer said the Northeast Corridor was long ago equipped with a system called automatic train control. While that system prevents trains from running past stop signals, it doesn’t correct for excessive speed ahead of curves.

Congress mandated positive train control in 2008 for much of the nation’s rail network, and some lawmakers are floating a three- to five-year extension for its installation.

Unlike Amtrak’s long-distance trains, which are diesel powered, the Northeast Corridor is electrified. But the system of overhead wires and supports that supplies power to the trains dates to the Great Depression.

Amtrak’s five-year plan for the corridor says 62 percent of the overhead wires and 42 percent of the steel supports need to be replaced.

The plan also notes that the economic cost of losing service on the Northeast Corridor could reach $100 million a day. As of Wednesday afternoon, Amtrak service was still suspended between New York and Philadelphia.

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