The juxtaposition of a deadly passenger train derailment with a US House of Representatives vote to slash $100 million from Amtrak's budget naturally has people talking. To proponents of a big boost in US infrastructure spending, the disaster seems like a great illustration of the need to spend more.
Yesterday's train derailment speaks powerfully to the need for a major infrastructure investment program.— Lawrence H. Summers (@LHSummers) May 13, 2015
At the same time, it's natural for skeptics to ask if more money really would have fixed the problem. Based on what we know so far, it looks like the answer is yes — it very possibly could have, though it would have to have been spent on the right thing, which wouldn't necessarily have been Amtrak's top use of extra money.
The Wall Street Journal, citing two sources with knowledge of the ongoing investigation, reports the train was traveling at more than 100 miles per hour at the time of the derailment — well below the vehicle's top speed, but much faster than the 50-mile-per-hour rate at which it is safe to traverse the section of curved track the train was on.
Jason Rabinowitz's download of publicly available Amtrak data seems to show the same thing.
Why would the train be traveling over 100 miles per hour in a 50-mile-per-hour zone? We don't know yet. What we do know is that Amtrak has a technology solution at hand that would make this impossible. It's called the Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System (ACSES) and it's a species of what's known as Positive Train Control (PTC) technology. ACSES uses wireless communications and transponders located in tracks to make sure that trains automatically abide by location-specific speed restrictions regardless of any possible human error.
By congressional mandate, PTC is supposed to be installed throughout the Northeast Corridor by the end of 2015, but it hasn't yet been installed in the Philadelphia area. Many stretches of freight and commuter rail track, meanwhile, seem to have fallen far behind the 2015 deadline — an issue addressed by a bill Senators Chuck Schumer and Richard Blumenthal introduced just a few weeks ago.
Had PTC been in place in Philadelphia, this derailment could have been avoided. And more money would have made PTC deployment possible.
Of course, there are lots of things Amtrak could have done with more money, and there's no guarantee that a larger generic budget would, in fact, have led to faster PTC deployment (Amtrak's decision-making is at times bizarre). But this really is a case where state-of-the-art infrastructure would have avoided the problem, and where more money would have made state-of-the-art infrastructure possible.