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As Long as We Remember...

May 15, 2015

Tragic Accident, Needless Loss of Life

Joe Charlebois

Navy Midshipman Third Class Justin Zemser from New York died in the Amtrak tragedy Tuesday on the way home to see his mother. He was one of eight passengers who died when the Amtrak train #188 derailed just miles north of Philadelphia.

His life, and the lives of seven others, was needlessly lost.

Since the tragedy, the 24-hour news cycle kicked into overdrive with instant analysis from pundits whose comments were full of inaccuracies and wild speculation.

Progressive writers didn’t take long looking for ways to exploit such a crisis. The Washington Post opinion page on Thursday published a Philip Howard piece in which Mr. Howard states that the derailment is a “symptom” of Congress’ inaction to fund infrastructure. Little known radio host and Huffington Post contributor Richard A. Fowler wrote on the HuffPost Thursday that this accident could have been prevented with more government spending on infrastructure.

Then, of course, the politicians got involved. Former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell stated that if only the U.S. invested in infrastructure these “train accidents” wouldn’t happen. At Camp David, President Barack Obama gave a speech that linked the “lack” of infrastructure funding to train derailments. He prefaced his comments for more funding for infrastructure admitting that he didn’t know for sure what caused the accident.

Those looking to expand government power will always be those looking to expand the stranglehold on the American taxpayer. These are the ones that immediately placed the blame for the derailment squarely on the shoulders of the Republicans in Congress. The Republicans? Yes, the Republicans, who have been calling for federal government spending reductions – including Amtrak, were seemingly the ones blamed for the loss of life on Philadelphia’s rails.

In reality the main safety issue that concerned Amtrak was not the quality of the rails, bridges or rail bed but rather the full implementation of Positive Train Control (PTC). Installing PTC would govern the speed of the trains through particularly dangerous sections of track. It is a computerized system that automatically reduces the speed of a train through reduced speed zones if the train is exceeding the speed limits.

Had the PTC been operational – as it is in many other areas of the country – the engineer, Brandon Bostian, would not have been able to run the train at 106 M.P.H. through a 50 M.P.H. zone.

The best reporting of the situation comes from CNN Politics reporters Jeremy Diamond, Deirdre Walsh and Athena Jones. This trio actually details the fact that PTC was in-place, but actual operation of the system was consistently delayed “due to technical issues with the Federal Communications Commission, including getting enough bandwidth to upgrade radios…” They also quoted an FCC official, who stated that “the spectrum Amtrak wanted to use in 2011 was owned by someone else.”

"It took them three more years to negotiate with private parties to acquire the needed spectrum for the Washington, D.C., to New York corridor," the official said in a statement. "Once Amtrak finalized their application, the Commission approved it within two days."

So, contrary to the hollow calls for Congress to act – and save lives – by dumping money into a potential black hole, Amtrak has actually had PTC on site and ready to engage once the approval had been given and transmission band-with was accurate and purchased from private individuals.

In the Philadelphia Area, the means to prevent such a tragedy, were available, but it was the inability to purchase the band-with in order to transmit the PTC data. Congress passed this legislation back in 2008 and it was signed into law. The implementation of PTC wasn’t required to be completed until the end of 2015.

Don’t let members of the media, Congress or even the president to lie about the conditions of the track around Philadelphia. It was the breaking of two laws that lead to the death of eight. The first was the speed limit, the second was the law of physics. The eight passengers should never had died this way.

And the crisis vultures flying overhead should let them rest in peace.



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