Infrastructure, indifference, & intransigence: America's 3 I's

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“I sincerely wish you could see what I’m seeing right now. As I’m writing this particular Op-Ed entry, I’m sitting on an Amtrak train – with the lush and scenic Northern Virginia countryside to my left and to my right. I wish you could hear what I’m listening to right now. I’m streaming a perfect musical soundtrack through my mobile device. The weather outside is gorgeous – blue sky, white cumulus clouds, and sunlight to spare. I wish you could feel what I’m feeling right now. I’m happy, healthy, optimistic, and expecting ample blessings today. In terms of the bigger picture, I’m encouraged because the state of our union is strong. Brighter days are ahead. Change is coming.”
 
I wrote those words one year ago in Washington, D.C. It was my first experience ever as a passenger with Amtrak. I’m not sure when – or if – there will be a second time. By now, you’re aware of the Amtrak passenger train derailment which occurred in downtown Philadelphia this past Monday night. Investigations are currently underway. However, it’s not too early to cast our gaze upon the 3 I’s: infrastructure (or the abundant lack thereof), indifference, and intransigence.
 
Ours is not a perfect world. Human beings are inherently flawed. Accidents can – and do – happen. These are universal truths which cannot be debated or ignored. However, when accidents occur and people die… when accidents occur and people are hurt… when accidents occur and property is damaged/destroyed, that’s tragic. When it becomes crystal clear that an accident such as the one which happened Monday could have been avoided in advance through innovation, intervention, and investment, that’s entirely unacceptable.
 
At least 8 people dead. More than 200 people injured. 8 crash survivors are in critical condition. As of Thursday morning – even while the debris from the wreckage is hauled off – some passengers of Amtrak Train 188 remain missing and unaccounted for. While investigators and rescue workers continue their solemn duties, the question everyone has is why. Why was a passenger train traveling at 106 miles per hour in an area where the speed limit was 50 miles per hour? Why did the train’s engineer – Brandon Bostian – apply the emergency brakes too late to safely decelerate the train? Was he distracted? Was he under the influence of drugs or alcohol? Was this, in fact, an accident? Why wasn’t “positive train control” – a computerized system designed to govern trains’ speeds and automatically slow trains down as they navigate around curves in place? And assuming – as I do – that Bostian was not on his cellphone at the time or under the influence or determined to intentionally cause mayhem, did he simply ignore the aural alerts triggered when the train is traveling too fast? Did Bostian manually disable those aural alerts? If so, why?
 
It is telling that one day after the Amtrak train crash in North Philadelphia, Republicans and Democrats were on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. doing what they do best – fighting. According to New York Post Reporters Michael D. Shear and Jad Mouawadmay, here was the scene at Congress, “As investigators picked through the rubble on Wednesday morning, Democratic lawmakers in Washington angrily demanded an increase in Amtrak funding, calling Tuesday night’s accident a result of congressional failure to support the rail system. Republicans refused, defeating the request in a morning committee hearing and accusing Democrats of using a tragedy for political reasons. 
 
“The scene was a replay of the swirling politics that have threatened to consume Amtrak in the four decades since it was nationalized by the United States government. Like the rest of the country’s crumbling public infrastructure, its aging rail beds and decades-old trains are sagging under increased use, especially in the Northeast, where nearly three-quarters of all travel takes place on the trains, not on planes. The immediate political rancor foreshadowed another fight to come soon: whether Congress will delay a mandate to install equipment that would have automatically reduced the speed of Northeast Regional train No. 188. The deadline for installing positive train control is the end of 2015, but Congress is considering extending the deadline to 2020 at the urging of freight and passenger rail systems that say the costs could rise to $10 billion.”
 
Attention, Congress: $100 million is lost every day the Washington-to-New York City commuter route is closed. Working people and travelers alike are stranded. Step up. 
 
Robert Sumwalt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said this of Amtrak Train #188 during a news conference on Wednesday, “We feel that had such a system (positive train control) been installed in this section of track, this accident would not have occurred.”
 
America’s crumbling infrastructure threatens all Americans - Republicans, Democrats, and everyone in-between. Intransigence is refusing to do what must be done. Indifference is not caring.
 
Positive train control? I’d happily settle for common sense. Change isn’t moving fast enough. My two eyes are upon this great nation's 3 I's: infrastructure, indifference, and intransigence. And in case you're wondering, my vision is excellent. Do you see what I see?
 

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