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Trump’s America

Island Life

“I’m sure there was some familiarization, but the question is, how familiar was he with it?”      
Allen Zarembski- Univ. of Delaware

Right from the start, I will have to state in this latest struggle with words in this space, that for purposes of clarity I will have to suspend (at least this time around) my substitution of the term 45* for the name of the so-called current president of these United States. It will also have to be admitted that the quote above is not in reference to Hair Twittler, our Tweeter-in-Chief, but rather it is a quote from the author of the Art and Science of Rail Grinding, who is also a professor of rail safety at the University of Delaware. The quote comes from comments he made regarding the recent derailment of Amtrak train 501 near DuPont, WA, and was referencing the depth (or lack thereof) of knowledge that this train’s engineer had about this new route on this maiden voyage of this transport service. This disaster was also an occasion where our tweeting president chose to exhibit yet another example of his lack of familiarity with the office he occupies by first blaming the accident on congress and their failure to pass an infrastructure bill, before expressing sympathies for the victims of the crash.

As it was noted fairly early on in the reporting of this accident, this occurred on newly laid tracks, put in place as a part of an effort costing nearly $200 million to shave time off the train trip from Seattle to Portland. One could note, though, from viewing the footage from the news helicopters and a perusal of the Google maps, that in using an old train bed for this new venture, the old railroad overpass that spans I-5 had apparently once accommodated two sets of tracks and the curve that was initiated before getting to the overpass was extended onto the rail bridge in order to apparently try to soften the centrifugal effect of that curve. In going higher into the air space above these tracks via the Googlemaps one can note that, following soon after this one, there are indeed two more curves, all three of which bring to mind those graphic roadside warning signs indicating winding roads ahead by showing an illustration of a truck flying sideways off of the roadbed. It would seem that if anyone in a position to be in control of a large, train-like vehicle heading into this slalom course should have the sense to slow down before entering there. Moving backwards a step or two, one might also question why a route being planned and touted as a high speed rail project would have included as a design element a curve or series of curves that requires a reduction in speed of more than half of its average traveling velocity. I would suspect that taking advantage of existing rights of way had something to do with it. One could imagine that budgets and cost cutting had something to do with it as well.

In digging around a little bit I see that this stretch of railway is just a part of a bigger, $800 million project known as the Cascades High-Speed Rail Capital Program between Seattle and Portland. There is however no mention of speed in the title of the project that this crash took place within- it is known only as the Point Defiance Bypass Project. I see from an article in Crosscut from 2011 that this bypass had been in the planning since 1995, at which point it was imagined as a $91.6 million track upgrade, with funds then expected to be coming from the federal American Recovery Act. It is unclear where along the way its cost more than doubled. While its goal of separating freight from passenger traffic seems laudable, spending almost $200 million to shave 6-10 minutes (depending on whose estimates you want to believe) from a three plus hour trip seems a bit extravagant even for Trump’s America. I could see where, with fourteen trains a day carrying 300 passengers each, that could significantly reduce the automobile traffic that parallels this route on Interstate 5, but if the train route is barely faster than getting there by driving, where is the incentive for people to go by rail instead of car?

Getting beyond Trump’s callous politicization of this latest disaster (if one can), you have to wonder how the soon to be “best infrastructure plan ever” would include rail transportation at all. One would assume that, to the contrary, highways and oil consumption would be a Trumpian priority, along with of course private jet landing and takeoff facilities at all Trump hotels and golf courses. I could see a presidential decree that called for all trains to become coal fired again, so that would require at least a few new jobs for coal shovelers and water tower attendants, not to mention the coal miners. And of course there would be the caboose mandate, returning that lost but not forgotten car to the railroad scene, just because it would remind Donald of the choo-choo train he had as a kid. The front end cow catchers could again become mandatory equipment, as all of the country is proclaimed open range land, and the rail roadkill could be branded as Trump steaks and sold in the dining car as organic, locavore cuisine.

One of the things that could come of the Trump infrastructure plan is that the Positive Train Control (PTC) system could possibly then be fully funded, a system that could supposedly have helped to avoid the Amtrak 501 crash. In spite of an act of congress in 2008 that mandated nationwide installation of this train safety system following a crash in California that year, it is now scheduled to be implemented in either 2018 or 2020, as long as Wall Street and the railroad industry don’t lobby to delay for even more time to have it in place and working. According to a Union Pacific website, full installation of a nationwide PTC system will cost $10 billion and $500 million yearly to maintain. Supposedly the original congressional bill offered $199 million in funds to help start work on the system. I see that the U.S. Transportation Department awarded $197 million in grants for PTC systems throughout the U.S. this past May, $1.2 million of which went to the Oregon Dept. of Transportation for the PTC System to be tested on two Amtrak trains traveling between Eugene and Vancouver, BC. But what about the other 12 trains running there, as well as the freight trains that also pass through that steel-railed corridor? All of this is very confusing, and does not seem  to bode well for a speedy implementation of this or any safety system. What might make more sense and be a cheaper and more immediate fix would be to mandate two engineers be on duty in each train engine so that if one should suffer from a “loss of situational awareness” there is a second person there, like on commercial airplanes, as a backup. But this is Trump’s America, and nothing seems to make sense anymore. And given Trump’s own current distraction and loss of situational awareness, it seems highly unlikely that something as egalitarian as trains will once more be allowed to come back and be a player in making America great again.