A Horrible Way to Be Proven Right

Yesterday was not a proud day for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). The agency spent close to $800 million of federal funds on a so-called high-speed rail project between Seattle and Portland–only “so-called” because top speeds would be just 79 mph, which is conventional rail. Much of the money was spent upgrading existing tracks to give passenger trains a shorter (but less scenic) route through and around Tacoma.

As you probably know, the very first train to use this route derailed on an overpass over Interstate 5, blocking half the freeway and killing at least three, and probably more, passengers. It so happens that Mayor Don Anderson of Lakewood, Washington–about 10 miles north of the crash–warned WSDOT on December 5 that it was not taking safety seriously enough. “This project was never needed and endangers our citizens,” he declared.

To be fair, Mayor Anderson was worried that grade crossings in Lakewood were inadequately protected for 79-mph trains. But his comments more generally suggest that WSDOT was putting the goal of saving Seattle-Portland passengers ten minutes of time–increasing average speeds by just 2.7 mph–ahead of safety.

In response to the accident, President Trump tweeted, “The train accident that just occurred in DuPont, WA shows more than ever why our soon to be submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly.” The implication was that this is an example of crumbling infrastructure, when really the infrastructure was brand new, and this is more an example of misplaced infrastructure priorities.

In fact, what the accident shows is why the federal government should get out of the infrastructure business. As Mayor Anderson said, this project was unnecessary, and it was only done because President Obama wanted to spend billions of federal dollars on ideologically driven high-speed rail projects and WSDOT had a shovel-ready project (despite not being high-speed rail) on which to spend some of those dollars.

Trump’s inclination is to have the federal government back out of the infrastructure-funding game. But many members of Congress in both parties see infrastructure as a store full of candy they can give out to please their constituents and campaign contributors. The danger is that a hastily passed bill will end up spending more billions on unnecessary projects like the Seattle-Portland train.

No matter what speed, intercity passenger trains are obsolete and have been at least since the advent of jet airliner service. Even after hundreds of millions spent on improvements, this particular train would have been slower than driving from Seattle to Portland, but even the fastest high-speed trains are slower than flying.

One airline alone offers nearly two dozen flights a day between the Portland and Seattle airports. People who complain that Sea-Tac Airport is a long way from Seattle would do better to seek more flights out of King County Airport (aka Boeing Field), which is just four miles from downtown Seattle, than to support more trains.

Amtrak’s Seattle-Portland fare is $26 while the cheapest flights are $65. But Amtrak is heavily subsidized by both federal and state governments. Amtrak’s Seattle-Portland trains (which also go to Vancouver, BC and Eugene, OR) earned just under $30 million in ticket revenues in 2016 but cost Amtrak more than $68 million to operate not counting depreciation and other costs that Amtrak doesn’t allocate to individual trains. Meanwhile, subsidies to airlines are small and mostly go to support small-town airports.

On average and including all subsidies, airline travel costs about 16 cents per passenger mile while Amtrak costs about 60 cents per passenger mile. Higher-speed trains may attract more passengers but cost so much more that the costs per passenger mile are at least six times as much as the costs of flying. Regardless of what you think of Amtrak, the point is that transportation spending decisions should be made by and in response to transportation users, not by politicians, and especially not by federal politicians.

Though we know it wasn’t crumbling infrastructure, it’s too early to tell what did cause this accident. However, it appears likely the train was going too fast: train recorders indicates it was going 81 mph at the time of the crash, yet the curve at the the derailment site was signed for 30 mph. The train did not have the positive train control system that would have forced it to automatically slow down.

Congress passed a law in 2008 requiring all passenger railways to have positive train control by December 15, 2015. Almost none met the deadline. This particular rail line is owned by the Seattle rail transit agency known as Sound Transit. The train was jointly owned by the states of Oregon and Washington and operated by Amtrak, while the improvements were made by WSDOT. These government agencies spend billions of dollars on rail improvements, yet couldn’t find enough money in their budgets for positive train control.

Beyond that, the likelihood that the engineer was going more than twice as fast as allowed raises more questions about Amtrak’s safety culture. No matter what the cause, the accident never would have happened were it not for federal involvement in infrastructure spending.

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14 thoughts on “A Horrible Way to Be Proven Right

  1. msetty

    The infrastructure spending argument is irrelevant to the issue at hand. By The Antiplanner’s illogic, hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved if government hadn’t subsidized driving to the tune of trillions of dollars over the last seven decades.

    An engineer hitting a 30 mph curve at 81 mph shows lack of training, perhaps not enough familiarization runs over the new line. This is independent of mode or infrastructure spending patterns.

  2. Sandy Teal

    How do you start running a train line with the automatic safety controls turned off???????

    Was that in the EIS? Or were all the EIS predictions based on all the safety controls being installed and active all the time?

  3. Frank

    “Bolt Bus, $15, three hours and fifteen minutes scheduled trip time.”

    That’s the scheduled trip time. It can be much, much longer especially around holidays or during rush hour. Took six hours to drive from Seattle to Portland on a Friday before Memorial Day.

    There is no good mode of transportation between Seattle and Portland.

  4. Frank

    “How do you start running a train line with the automatic safety controls turned off???????”

    The “safety controls” were not “turned off”; the train didn’t even have the positive train control system installed:

    “The train did not have the positive train control system that would have forced it to automatically slow down.”

  5. JOHN1000

    “An engineer hitting a 30 mph curve at 81 mph shows lack of training, perhaps not enough familiarization runs over the new line. ”

    A “lack of training” and “perhaps not enough familiarization”. Wow, you sure know how to understate a horrible, horrible situation.

    I assume you use such kind words for the train and engineer because we all know that if the Feds had simply given WSDOT sufficient amounts of money, they would not have crashed.

  6. prk166


    An engineer hitting a 30 mph curve at 81 mph shows lack of training, perhaps not enough familiarization runs over the new line.
    “~msetty

    We know humans make mistakes. By prioritizing non-PTC improvements over implementing PTC, bureaucrats prioritized things over human lives.

  7. itseric

    One has to wonder how all of these gov bureaucrats refused to upgrade a 30 MPH curve on a line designed to run 80 MPH. Just remember this as the meme will be “all of those evil for profit companies caused this accident…”

    Secondly, since they’ve been working on this upgrade for 5+ years, why couldn’t they get the PTC installed in time for the first run? It’ll be interesting to see what the rationals were for delaying PTC.

  8. prk166

    It’s heart breaking to see all the people dead and severely injured. All the more seeing these two gentlemen dead who surely were experiencing genuine joy being on the inaugural run.

    http://www.sfgate.com/news/crime/article/Deadly-train-derailment-Silence-then-screams-12440733.php

    Two of the dead were identified as train buffs and members of the rail advocacy group All Aboard Washington and were excited to be on board for the inaugural run: Jim Hamre, a retired civil engineer with the state Transportation Department, and Zack Willhoite, a customer service employee at a local transit agency.

    “It’s pretty devastating. We’re having a tough time,” said All Aboard Washington executive director Lloyd Flem.

  9. Frank

    ‘That’s the scheduled trip time.’

    Amtrak’s web page indicates their NW train has arrived on time 55% of the time in the last year.

    I dob’t doubt it nor am I defending Amtrak. I wonder what the “on time” record is for driving (or Bolt Bus). The bus at least has the option of the HOV lane in Seattle for about 15 miles or so. Olympia, JBLM, Tacoma, and Seattle traffic can be terrible and add significant delays, especially if there’s an accident.

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