When people step aboard any Amtrak passenger train they should expect to arrive at their destination safely. However, that wasn’t the case last week when the Los Angeles to Chicago Southwest Chief derailed near Cimarron, Kan., injuring more than 30 people.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the condition of the track. An NTSB spokesman said it appeared a cattle feed truck that struck the rails shifted the track about 12 to 14 inches. Why such damage wasn’t reported immediately is mind-boggling. A notification could have prevented the Amtrak accident and what may amount to as much as $3 million in damage to the train.
The train derailed shortly after midnight March 14 after the engineer noticed a significant bend in the rail and applied the emergency brake. Eight cars derailed about 20 miles west of Dodge City.
The train with two locomotives and 10 cars had 131 passengers and 14 crew members. At least 32 people were injured, two critically, in the derailment on a section of BNSF-owned track between Dodge City and Garden City.
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The McClatchy Washington Bureau reported that parts of the track in western Kansas had deteriorated so much that Amtrak was close to reducing train speeds in some locations from 60 mph to 30 mph.
Going slower may have been safer for that train and its passengers but far from efficient. Garden City, in a 2014 federal grant application, described the degraded condition of the track, noting that “much of the rail is 30 percent past its normal useful life but still in generally good condition for salvage.”
Garden City applied for a TIGER grant, which stands for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, begun in 2009 during President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus.
Joe Boardman, president and chief executive officer of Amtrak, said last week that millions of dollars in grant money in 2014, 2015 and 2016 would replace close to 160 miles of older, bolted rail with new, continuously welded track, enabling trains to travel more smoothly and at higher speeds. About 40 percent of the funding comes from state and local governments and BNSF.
Operators of cattle feed trucks and other vehicles must be more careful at train crossings and certainly be compelled to report damage. Beyond that, the condition of tracks all over the country remains a safety concern.
Derailments of trains carrying crude oil gained a lot of attention in the last year with spills damaging the environment and fires forcing the evacuation of area communities. New track standards were put in place along with improved tank cars.
Also, between 2018 and 2020, most railroads expect to start using positive train control, which depends on wireless radio and computers to monitor train positions and automatically slow or stop trains in danger of colliding or derailing.
It’s all to make freight and passenger rail service safer and more efficient. Despite the Kansas derailment and investigation, BNSF restored the track last week, and the Southwest Chief was back running two trains a day.
Ensuring that people and freight move safely, however, has to remain the highest priority.