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Government Rail Remains Insolvent and Unsafe at Any Speed

Tuesday March 28th, 2017   •   Posted by K. Lloyd Billingsley at 10:10am PDT   •  

Last December, Amtrak train number 527 approached a track switch near Davis, California, where the speed limit was 40 mph. The engineer roared through at 78 mph, jerking the train violently and causing five passengers to suffer injuries. The Federal Railroad Administration let Amtrak conduct its own investigation, and as one passenger told reporters, the tax-funded rail system was “refusing transparency on what could have been a catastrophic incident.” Amtrak conceded a “speed violation” but did not name the engineer who “lost situational awareness” and “did not recognize the action to be taken.” Amtrak submitted employee discipline “assessments” but has yet to reveal if any employee was in fact disciplined. A ballpark figure would be zero. Amtrak employees, including engineers, belong to government employee unions and government bosses protect them at all costs.

In May 2015 near Philadelphia, engineer Brandon Bostian hurtled Amtrak 188 through a 50-mph curve at a full 106 mph, more than twice the limit. The train derailed, killing eight people and injuring 200. The National Transportation Safety Board explained that Bostian was distracted by radio reports of another train being struck by a projectile. Bostian sued Amtrak for failing to provide a safe environment and charged that his train “was under attack by projectiles,” which caused him to be “disoriented.” Injured victims could be forgiven for dismissing that as nonsense. Nobody in Amtrak management appears to have lost their job over the derailment but the lack of safety is not the only problem.

As we noted, Amtrak is a certified money-loser, despite massive subsidies from the federal government. From 2002 to 2012 Amtrak lost $834 million on food and drink services alone, much of it due to fraud and theft. Republicans have talked about halting subsidies and privatizing the system but ended up increasing Amtrak’s funding by $384 million.

Privatized passenger rail, Gabriel Roth explains, would likely have a better safety record because management would spend money more wisely. For example, Positive Train Control can prevent excessive speed but despite a 2008 Amtrak mandate, PTC was never installed on the busiest routes. Amtrak 188 didn’t have PTC and neither did Amtrak 527.

“Getting government out of the rail passenger business,” Roth notes, “would free management to align service with passenger demand, and focus on quality and safety, rather than satisfying political constituencies.”

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March 2017