U.S. Rail System in Dire Need of More Investment

Posted September 22, 2008 at 1:42pm

Earlier this month, America experienced its most fatal rail crash in 15 years. A collision between two trains in Chatsworth, Calif., left 25 people dead and 135 injured. It was painful to realize that this crash could have been prevented with an investment in technology deployed on rail lines around the world.

As we mourn the victims of the Chatsworth crash, we should seize the opportunity to modernize an outdated, underfunded rail system to make sure this never happens again. A first-rate American rail system can make our air cleaner, ease traffic, save our families money, reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and — as the recent tragedy drove home — even save lives.

Nearly every modern train system in Asia and virtually every track in Europe uses a signal system designed to stop trains that run red lights. A National Transportation Safety Board investigator has confirmed that positive train control, as the technology is known, “would have prevented this accident.”

Only a handful of American train tracks beyond the Washington- to-Boston corridor have invested in positive train control. Facing continuous budget cuts and an unsupportive administration, rail lines have not made the investment in signaling technology that is the safety standard around the world.

But if we truly want people to travel safely, here’s the big picture: Even if we don’t spend another dollar on rail safety, trains are far safer than cars. For every mile traveled in 2004, for example, a passenger was 36 times more likely to die in a car than in a train. By building an additional 1,500 miles of train tracks between our larger cities, we would save approximately100 lives each year by keeping people off the roads — saving as many lives every three months as were tragically lost last week.

Numbers like those are just one more reason to demand that America finally create a world-class high-speed rail system. From stopping the flow of oil money overseas to easing the flow of traffic right here at home, all our policy problems point us toward rail. Infrastructure investments create construction jobs in the short run and all sorts of economic growth over the long haul. On a per- passenger basis, no car is as fuel-efficient or climate-friendly as a commuter train. It’s not even close.

People are noticing the advantages of rail. With gasoline prices through the roof, Americans have begun moving from cars to commuter rail and from airlines to Amtrak. Americans took more than 2.8 billion trips on public transportation in the second quarter of 2008, 140 million more trips than the same period last year. The number of people riding Amtrak surged by more than 13 percent in July from a year earlier — the most passengers carried in any month during Amtrak’s 37-year history.

Meanwhile, traffic congestion continues to worsen in cities across the country, creating a $78 billion drain on the U.S. economy by costing us 4.2 billion lost man-hours of work and 2.8 billion gallons of wasted fuel. Last year, domestic flight delays cost the economy $41 billion and consumed about 740 million additional gallons of jet fuel waiting on the ground. Passenger rail reduces congestion and is an effective alternative to highway and air transportation. Americans want safe alternatives — and we can deliver them.

Last year in the U.S. Senate we passed legislation to reauthorize Amtrak and invest $11.4 billion over six years to help create a strong passenger rail network that will help Americans get where they need to go in a quick, safe and efficient manner. We need to see that this bill becomes law. It’s a smart economic investment in our nation’s future. It will allow Amtrak to upgrade its equipment, improve its security and return the Northeast Corridor to a state of good repair. It will provide funding for new intercity passenger high-speed rail lines across the nation.

Once we pass Amtrak’s reauthorization, I intend to offer a broader follow-up bill to put this country on a path toward a world-class rail system.

The High-Speed Rail for America Act creates a central office to oversee the development of high-speed rail and provides a consistent source of funding. The bill lays out criteria for evaluating programs, and over the course of six years this bill provides $200 million per year in grants, $8 billion in tax-exempt bonds, $10 billion in tax credit bonds for high-speed intercity rail facilities and $5.4 billion in tax credit bonds for rail infrastructure.

The bill will result in the development of world-class high-speed rail corridors that will get people from city to city faster and more reliably then any other form of transportation. States working together, with help and funding from the federal government, can make world-class high-speed rail a reality and not just a dream in dozens of states.

High-speed rail is greener, cheaper, safer and more convenient. It creates jobs, lightens traffic, shortens the spaces that separate our cities, and transforms economies and lives. The demand is there. It’s up to us to make the wise investments that will create the capacity to meet it.

Sen. John Kerry is a Democrat from Massachusetts.