Frank Bernheisel: The View From Here
Frank Bernheisel
Frank Bernheisel
Posted 05.16.15
Just Outside Washington


Working on the railroad

Kathy and I were scheduled to go to New York from Washington for my granddaughter's, graduation. We had tickets on Amtrak Northeast Regional run at 8:10 on Saturday morning. Tuesday evening the Northeast Regional went off the rails and crashed. Eight people were killed. The railroad is closed and we've made other arrangements.

According to the 2013 study, Comparing the Fatality Risks in United States Transportation Across Modes and Over Time, in the journal, Research in Transportation Economics, mainline railroads had an average of 876 deaths per year for the period 2000 -- 2009. The majority of these deaths were caused by collisions with highway users and pedestrians, and they comprised 64 percent of the total fatalities.

Per year, on average, only seven passengers traveling on mainline trains die. This computes to an overall fatality rate for long-haul train service of 0.43 per billion passenger miles. When pedestrians and others not on trains are excluded, the fatality rate is approximately 0.15 per billion passenger miles.

The study also indicates that the deaths in private vehicles on highways, over the same period, averaged 36,466 per year.

Nearly three-quarters of people who died in highway crashes (74 percent) were occupants of automobiles and light trucks of which 55 percent occurred in single-vehicle incidents. That is, there was no prior collision with another vehicle; these included roll-overs; vehicles striking fixed objects, animals or debris; or catching fire. Drivers or passengers in cars or light trucks faced a fatality risk of 7.3 deaths per billion passenger-miles. The study indicated that a person who was in a motor vehicle for thirty miles every day for a year faced a fatality risk of about 1 in 12,500.

Relative to mainline trains the risk was seventeen times greater.

Bottom line: passengers on trains are safer than those, including drivers, in cars and light truck, per passenger mile traveled. Therefore, if Kathy and I drive, our risk of death is much higher.

Our esteemed leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 749, Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act of 2015. According to the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee website the bill: "improves the Nations rails system, and reforms Amtrak by reducing costs, creating greater accountability, transparency, leveraging private sector resources, accelerating rail project delivery."

In plain English this translates into: "we are cutting Amtrak's budget."

On Wednesday, the House Appropriations Committee approved a $55 billion transportation and housing measure that would cut Amtrak's budget by $251 million, to $1.1 billion, for the upcoming fiscal year.

The reasons given by members of Congress for this this is that Amtrak is not a money maker and must be subsidized. A valid argument, if other modes of transportation were self-sustaining. But they are not.

The Highway Trust Fund is broke and they have not raised the gas tax, which provides money for the trust fund, since 1994. The federal gas tax is 18.4 cents a gallon, and the diesel fuel tax is 24.4 cents a gallon. Even if the Highway Trust Fund were fully funded, it would not pay for all the direct costs of road transportation. Indirect costs, including environmental costs, are another story entirely.

That's a hell of a way to run a railroad. Or anything else for that matter.