Do We Really Want Amtrak Running Trains in MN? (Part 2)

The deadly crash of the Amtrak Cascades line passenger train south of Seattle this week shines the spotlight on the government agency’s fatal ineptitude–again.

Amtrak’s new CEO Richard Anderson, well known to Minnesotans as former head of both Northwest and Delta Airlines,  confirmed safety technology that could have made a difference had yet not been installed, according to CNN.

Amtrak’s co-CEO apologized profusely for the high-speed train derailment that hurled passenger cars onto a freeway, killing three people and injuring 100.

“It’s not acceptable that we are involved in these kinds of accidents. We are terribly sorry to the people that are involved,” Richard Anderson said.

The tragedy revives the question American Experiment asked after Amtrak’s last highly publicized but preventable derailment at New York’s Penn Station a few months back: Do we really want Amtrak running trains in Minnesota?

MnDOT certainly does, in the form of the $1 billion proposed Northern Lights Express line to Duluth I wrote about in the aftermath of the Penn Station pile-up.

MnDOT continues to move forward on plans to bring back passenger train service between the Twin Cities and Duluth-Superior. It’s an idea that’s already come and gone years ago. The government tried and failed at operating the North Star passenger line to Duluth-Superior in the late 1970s. But North Star shut down after seven short years in business back in 1985.

Now state planners want not only to revive the rebranded Northern Lights Express line but bring back its original operator, Amtrak. The government railroad corporation’s unblemished record of incompetence across the U.S. has only been further embellished in the decades since North Star went south on its watch.

This week’s debacle in Washington state occurred on the inaugural run of a new high speed route that was supposed to shave a few minutes off the trip from Seattle to Portland. Two of the dead were members of a rail advocacy group, All Aboard Washington.

Those who survived were injured and severely shaken. “It was like being inside an exploding bomb,” passenger Charlie Heebner, 79, told CNN affiliate KOMO.
He and his wife, Beverly, had been looking forward to the route’s inaugural run. But their adventure was soon marred by carnage. They were catapulted across the train car and had to crawl to safety.
“There was this body lying there,” Beverly Heebner said. “I mean he hardly had any clothes on, the clothes had just been ripped off of him. And he was obviously dead.”

Just weeks before, the mayor of a city near the crash site had warned the project–funded under the federal stimulus act–was an unnecessary safety hazard to local residents. The NLX website assures potential passengers the line–also proposed under the Obama administration–prioritizes safety. The 152 mile long corridor includes 117 public and 44 private grade crossings.

The FRA’s [Federal Railroad Administration’s] goal is uniformly safe passenger rail service, regardless of speed. However, with increased speed comes added safety concerns regarding collisions and train derailments.  Accordingly, the FRA has adapted their safety regulations and established safety standards across the board, applying these standards to address safety concerns on passenger rail lines to ensure that railroads involved in passenger operations are trained to manage emergencies effectively and efficiently.

It’s hard to miss other similarities on the surface between the Cascades line and the proposed NLX corridor. Both fall into the category of “higher speed” trains operating on upgraded tracks shared with freight trains. Both require public subsidies that represent a waste of taxpayer funds. And perhaps the most critical similarity of all–Amtrak.

“We have to assure people’s confidence in rail transit,” said [Washington] Gov. Jay Inslee. “It’s very difficult to understand but rail transit is still the safest method of transit today. But that’s not good enough for us. We want zero accidents and zero tragedies of this nature.”