America, take that train!

By Andrej Mrevlje |

I love trains. I have taken many in my life, and every time I take the subway, the New York MTA makes my dreams come true. It is enough to close my eyes and listen to the sound of the train: thump, thump, thump

Through former Yugoslavia, towards southern Europe – Spain, Portugal and Morocco. Or on the way to Paris, back from Rome. Then there were the Asia trips: through Mongolia and Siberia, and all the way from Beijing to Canton. Trains to my youth and back, into to a sleep with the repetitive sound of heavy wheels on old, unsealed rail tracks. I thought that was a sound and rhythm that I’d lost forever. So I was delighted to rediscover them when I moved to the capital of the modern world – New York.

As it happens, I never took the train to Washington. (It is shockingly expensive for the quality and distance involved.) I never took that damn curve in Philadelphia where a derailed train killed eight and injured many more. But I do take trains that are part of the same Northeast Rail System, operated by Amtrak and Metro North, when I travel to see my friends in upstate New York. Those trains, like all other American trains, continue to use rail tracks that make that same thumping sound that I grew accustomed to in my youth. They pull those same old, heavy cars – you can feel their weight on your body every time the trains stop or start with their familiar, rusty squeak.

Last week, just a few hours after the Pennsylvania accident, I read the first report. It quoted Paul Cheung, a manager at the Associated Press, who was on the train, saying that, “the train started to decelerate, like someone had slammed the brake.” It had been going too fast around a treacherous turn.

I asked myself, How is it possible that one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world does not use a simple control system that prevents trains from going too fast? Even Morocco, where it once took me 24 hours to travel the 180 miles from Tangier to Fes, uses this kind of system now. And not in the United States?

I read later that Amtrak, the operator of the train in the disaster, said that the rail track does have a speed control system installed, just not on that particular curve – at least not in that particular Northbound direction. Really?

And what is this investigation involving the FBI? It suggested the cause of the crash was some kid throwing a stone at a train rushing by at 100 miles per hour and discombobulating the driver. What if, instead of passengers, that train was transporting oil and a massive explosion occurred?

Judging by last week’s AP dispatch, the right questions are being asked. America is finally looking at herself and asking, “Why? Where are we headed?” Can we learn from Amtrak’s lesson?

To put this in perspective, the Chinese are building a canal in Nicaragua, which will significantly shorten transport time for cargo traveling from the Pacific to the Atlantic by sea. Chinese investors calculated that the Panama Canal is no longer big enough to accommodate the escalation of international trade. So they proposed the Nicaragua Canal, one of the biggest infrastructure projects in the world. It will cost about $100 billion and take five years to build. While planning it, the investors were afraid that the United States might jeopardize the project simply by modernizing their railway transport system. Fast train transport from coast to coast in the U.S. would easily out-compete the Nicaragua project.

Efficient, improved train lines were even on President Obama’s White House agenda. The government put aside the money for it. But conservative governors refused to contribute any money and thus killed the projects. That unwillingness to invest in rail infrastructure has given the Chinese the opportunity to leave the U.S. in the dust when it comes to Atlantic-Pacific trade. But more importantly, it has come at the cost of eight lives lost needlessly.

☆ Support this work via Venmo

Yonder is a weekly newsletter from Andrej Mrevlje that connects global events in the news, delivered every week. Learn more »