get on track

America’s neglect of its railroads could be turning deadly

December 2, 2013
December 2, 2013

Forget about the need for high-speed rail. An investigation is underway, but yesterday’s Metro-North train derailment in New York City, which killed four people and injured more than 60, exposes the long-term lack of investment in mass transit infrastructure in the US. In July, a freight train hauling trash had derailed in the same area. And this weekend’s incident came just a day after a freight train derailed in New Mexico and plunged into a ravine, killing three crew members. More than just long delays and billions of dollars in lost economic productivity, America’s neglect of railroads has deadly consequences.

The failure to pay attention to basic maintenance needs has led to much more significant losses of life across the world. When a 2011 train crash in Wenzhou, China killed 40 people, not even 10 years after the country had begun building its high-speed rail system,  even state-run television there didn’t hesitate to point fingers at the government. Soon after, hundreds were injured in a Shanghai subway accident. Concerns about building track on unstable, sinking soil, and in earthquake-prone areas of Western China, have also been raised, but the rapid expansion of the country’s rail is far from slowing.

In India, where billions have been committed in recent years to expanding and improving mass transit, the situation is far worse. A government panel accused the country’s railway system of “massacre” after finding that 15,000 people die each year simply while crossing the railway tracks. The panel said replacing unsafe crossings with bridges or overpasses would cost $10 billion. India is now eyeing foreign investment for its public transport sector—but it remains to be seen if that will result in upgrading a decrepit system, or new and flashy expansions.

Investing in basic infrastructure needs like maintenance isn’t a sexy political cause. But it’s necessary. And passenger rail may not even be the biggest concern: freight rail accidents actually could be the most catastrophic. The American Society of Civil Engineers said in 2006 that more than $120 billion will need to be pumped into US rail infrastructure to keep up with increasing demand for freight rail by 2035—and that was before a major oil and gas boom in the US created a market for rail transport of crude.

The need for more mass transit has steadily been gaining traction, as traffic and car deaths worldwide become increasing political problems, and recent reports show American driving trends slowing. But if we can’t even invest of the safety of what we’ve got, the future of public transport could be under threat. As a survivor of yesterday’s crash in Manhattan told the New York Times, “You think you’re safe on the train. I know I’m going to be taking a car for a while.”

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