The recent wreck of a Southern California commuter train, killing 25 passengers, raises some old questions not necessarily about rail safety, but about how America should approach rail transit.
A total of 135 people were injured, including 81 in critical condition. Many bodies were said to have been crushed into the metal of the train’s interior.The accident happened after the Metrolink commuter train apparently missed a red stop signal and entered onto the main line where it hit a Union Pacific freight train head on. The accident happened on a curve as the UP train was emerging from a tunnel.
The passenger train was said to have been traveling at 40 MPH.
The crash was the deadliest in the United States since September 22, 1993 when an eastbound Amtrak Sunset Limited train hit a misaligned bridge over Big Bayou Canot near Mobile, Alabama, killing 47.
Metrolink is a Los Angeles-area commuter service that carries 45,000 passengers daily.
The issue in this crash is: What should be the role of railroads in contemporary American life?
Most citizens do not know that America has the best, most dynamic and most efficient railroad system in the world, carrying freight. Europeans, whose railroads move primarily passengers with big government subsidies, are amazed at the efficiency of American freight service at no cost to the taxpayer. Europe suffers from high levels of truck congestion on its highways because its railroads move so little freight.
Our system carries 25% of America’s freight, or 1.8 trillion ton-miles of freight per year (one ton of freight moving one mile is one ton-mile) and requires no government subsidy but actually employs about 250,00 people and pays taxes to the government. The Big Four major Class 1 freight railroads in America today are Union Pacific and BNSF operating mostly west of the Mississippi; and CSX and Norfolk Southern in the East.
The industry generates gross revenues of about $40 billion annually including The Big Four, regional railroads and short lines.
While some passenger train tracks are owned and maintained by Amtrak, like those between Boston, New York and Washington, most Amtrak trains and some commuter trains run on tracks that are owned and maintained by freight railroads.
Which raises the question: Whose rails are they anyway?
And which is the best use of these rails?
Today, Amtrak is demanding more and more in subsidies (it needs $5 billion and more just for essential infrastructure improvements) to move a very small number of people. Amtrak sells about 22 million tickets per year, while American airlines sell about 750 million tickets, and the private American intercity bus system sells about the same number as the airlines. And the fuel savings of Amtrak are small. It has about the same fuel efficiency as cars on trips over 70 miles.
So Amtrak is hardly the essential tool of American transit that it portrays itself. While Amtrak is valuable in congested areas like the Northeast corridor (Boston to Washington) and between some other big cities like Los Angeles-San Diego, its long-distance, cross-country trains only exist because of political pressures to “serve” certain states and congressional districts.
They are very inefficient trains that require the highest levels of government subsidy per ticket and run exclusively on private freight railroad tracks, causing delays for the Big Four which already are carrying record amounts of cargo.
On those long-distance runs – which carry relatively few Amtrak passengers because most long-distance traveler fly – Amtrak trains are supposed to have precedence over freight trains even though Amtrak runs on their tracks. But freight railroads have their own business to tend to, and cannot always accommodate Amtrak. This is why so many long-haul Amtrak trains have such a terrible on-time record; because they are repeatedly held up by freight train movements.
In the case of the Metrolink crash, Metrolink was running on the same tracks as Union Pacific. Since Metrolink is a local commuter service and covers short distances, it certainly has a high level of precedence over Union Pacific freights on the same tracks.
But the question remains: Should subsidized passenger trains run on the same tracks as profit-making non-subsidized freight railroads like Union Pacific? Is this not causing delays on UP and the other crucial freight lines, causing the freight railroad industry to lose valuable time and efficiency? Which is the best use of their tracks?
Are not the freight railroads more valuable to our economy in moving cargo efficiently and without subsidies?
The only conclusion is that it is time to get rid of long-distance Amtrak trains, reduce Amtrak subsidies, ultimately sell Amtrak to the private sector and limit commuter train access to busy freight train tracks. Perhaps these commuter lines can build their own tracks, or buses can be used for the Metrolink passengers just as efficiently.
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