As the environment and economy demand better and more mass transit — a demand many advanced countries and cities have long ago met — our country is stuck with a rail company so dysfunctional it can’t even keep its workers safe.
The stunning finding from Tuesday’s National Transportation Safety Board hearing on last year’s fatal Amtrak accident near Chester was that the company’s labor-management relationship is so toxic, it contributed to the deaths of two workers and injuries to 39 passengers.
In appropriately blunt language, the NTSB said management held punctuality above safety and that labor was afraid to risk agreeing to new safety protocols for fear workers would be fired over simple human errors.
“Despite the emphasis on rules compliance, investigators did not find a culture of compliance at all,” said Chairman Robert Sumwalt. “Rather, they found a culture of fear, on one hand, and normalization of deviance from the rules on the other.”
If Amtrak employees could just communicate with each other, this accident never would have happened.
But on April 3, 2016, Train 89 crashed into a backhoe on the tracks while traveling 99 mph on its run from New York City to Savannah, Ga. The backhoe operator, Joe Carter, and his supervisor, Peter Adamovich, were killed. More than one out of 10 of the train’s 337 passengers sustained injuries. Ten rail cars spilled off the tracks. Amtrak suspended service between Philadelphia and Washington and SEPTA shut down service on the Wilmington/Newark line for hours.
NTSB investigators spent months tearing through paperwork, interviews and equipment to piece together how this could have happened. They found that protocols were pretty good. Equipment was up to date. But it didn’t matter, because incompetence ruled at Amtrak.
The one piece of equipment which could have stopped the crash is called a shunt. It alters electrical current flowing through the tracks, which in turn alerts dispatchers that workers are on the tracks so they can divert trains. But the foreman didn’t have a shunt because Amtrak didn’t supply one, even though procedures called for it.
Line workers were another problem. Two shifts performed the routine maintenance on the eve of the fatal crash. After finishing, the night shift foreman canceled an order to stop trains from using the tracks. The day shift foreman didn’t ask dispatchers to reinstate the order, so at 7:50 a.m., Train 89 slammed into the backhoe.
Amtrak itself is in peril with President Trump’s deep budget cuts targeted at long distance rail service, construction grants and improvements along the system. These losses would hamstring the Philadelphia region’s growth as an academic and commercial center…to say nothing of halting progress and growth throughout the country.
Amtrak is trying to upgrade itself knowing that if the trains aren’t safe, ridership will suffer. The rail company has improved safety protocols, management and training. But none of these improvements can work until Amtrak looks inward and fixes its lethal environment.