In the aftermath of the December 18, 2017 horrific Amtrak derailment and crash near DuPont, Washington, a legitimate question for the nation is whether Amtrak is safe. The short answer is yes, but certainly our passenger rail service is under strain and heightened scrutiny as ever before. Immediately following the DuPont, Washington crash, we were reminded just how fragile our rail transportation system can be when we had an incident involving an Amtrak train carrying congressional representatives collided with a dump truck and then even more tragically, the loss of life in Charleston, South Carolina when the Amtrak train was derailed due to a locked siding.
Invariably, these incidents and resulting loss of life are the product of both human error as well as organizational failure. No doubt there will be thorough investigations conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board or NTSB to determine the root cause of all of these recent wrecks. And undoubtedly, they will find that it is a combination of human error as well as an overall organizational failure.
One must also keep in mind that incidents of this magnitude are often the result of several failures, that is acts or omissions, that combine to produce a tragic incident.
Human error of course will always be looked at first and questions will be posed as to whether or not the operating personnel had adequate training, were they distracted, did they take some kind of shortcuts or were they in a hurry. All of these questions of course will be dutifully answered by the NTSB.
It would be a mistake to simply assume events of this nature are the result of only human error.
We readily recognize that organizations, such as Amtrak which serves as our national rail passenger transportation system, can also fail and that failure can lead to bad outcomes. The NTSB must focus on the culture that exists or has been created by Amtrak, whether the leaders and managers accept bad behavior or tolerate excuses, impose policies and procedures without adequate training or proper implementation. Safety clearly starts from the top on down and the executive and management team that supervisor Amtrak on a daily basis have to examine themselves whether or not their systems, procedures and culture properly put safety first.
In the end, we hope that as a nation we can better address the shortcomings of our current rail passenger service.
Long ago, passenger travel by train was literally “put in a siding” while we spent hundreds of billions of dollars to improve our interstate roadway system and our airports. In the aftermath, we now have Amtrak which is a hobbled organization, underfunded and likely not properly managed in order to carry out and implement a first-class rail system. Look to the examples in Europe and Asia and you can see that the United States in its investment in passenger rail is decades behind.
If anything positive can come out of these tragedies and loss of human life is that we will examine what type of systematic improvements need to be made to make our passenger rail the safest possible.