On May 12th, 8 people were killed and over 200 people were injured when an Amtrak Northeast Regional train derailed in Philadelphia, PA. One month later, there are still many aspects of the accident that remain a mystery: we don't know why the train was going 106 miles per hour around a curve in a 50 miles per hour zone, no mechanical problems have been uncovered, and it is currently undetermined if an object hit the train prior to derailment. In a recent statement, the National Transportation Safety Board announced that "Analysis of the phone records does not indicate that any calls, texts, or data usage occurred during the time the engineer was operating the train." In short, we do not yet know why the crash occurred.
There is one aspect to this incident, however, that does not seem to be in doubt: the fact that positive train control, a technological safeguard designed to prevent train derailment during extreme speeding, is an important and crucial aspect of railway safety. In 2008, Congress mandated the technology be installed on over 70,000 miles of commuter railroad nationwide, with a deadline of December 2015. Current estimates hold that roughly 30% of the implementations have been completed so far; the technology had not yet been installed on the crucial stretch along the Northeast Corridor in Philadelphia. Investigators have said the technology could have slowed down the train, and, in turn, perhaps saved lives. Joe Boardman, CEO of Amtrak, agreed, stating that "We are responsible for the incident and its consequences," and noted that positive train control is the "single greatest contribution my generation of railroaders can make."
To say that it is a tragedy that positive train technology was not fully operational when it was needed is an understatement at best. Not surprisingly, a national debate has now begun as to why the remaining 70% of technology installation is so far behind the prescribed timeline. While there are differing opinions on how much funding should come from which particular source, the bottom line is that a lack of infrastructure spending and investment is literally costing lives, and that needs to change.
In the aftermath of the Amtrak crash on May 12th, train service on many connecting routes was temporarily suspended, and subsequently, many of Ovation's clients had their travel plans disrupted. As always, our travel consultants responded immediately to rebook those clients as quickly as possible. We understand that it's hard enough for a Road Warrior to be away from home and her family, and our bottom line is to make our clients' lives easier. To a certain extent, the complexity of travel can always necessitate a bit of stress, but it is an absolute disgrace that people are now boarding trains and wondering if there is going to be a major safety issue before their next stop.
To me, this is indicative of a nationwide infrastructure problem. The U.S. used to be a global leader in infrastructure spending after WWII, and the economy at large grew. Today, China invests roughly 9% of their G.D.P. in infrastructure and Europe invests 5%. The U.S., meanwhile, is somewhere down around 1.5%. I believe this is a complete disservice to the entire country. As our infrastructure crumbles, the issues expand beyond basic safety; because we're not spending money on infrastructure, we are losing economic capital and becoming less competitive on a global scale. Furthermore, there are so many people, particularly at the low end of the income spectrum, that could potentially have jobs working on infrastructure improvements all over this country.
It's going to hurt us as we compete with other countries like China that are spending money and attention on the things we are not. LaGuardia Airport in my home of New York City is a good example. Last year, Vice President Joe Biden compared its deteriorated state to a "third world country." There is a lot of back and forth about whether the airport should be improved or whether it should be shut down, but there is no debate about whether it needs help. New York is a major economic capital, and it's not right that one of its transportation hubs is in such bad shape.
There is no doubt that if we improve the infrastructure people will want to travel more. In the case of rail travel, it's more efficient than driving a car or going on a bus. Other countries use high-speed rail with great success. For example, you can take a TGV Train in France from Paris to Avignon and get there in 2.5 hours. This distance is roughly 430 miles. In the U.S., however, we are not utilizing that technology to equal effect; Amtrak's Acela Express train between Washington D.C. and New York City takes roughly 3 hours, and the distance is 230 miles.
Similarly, I think the world is doing itself a disservice in not furthering supersonic travel. Ovation used to be one of the largest sellers for the Concorde, and I flew on it twice. Commercial flights take roughly 8 hours to get from New York to Paris, and the Concorde took 3.5 hours. It was an amazing, unbelievable experience; you could hear a little "ping" when the sound barrier was broken. But the Concorde was removed from service in 2003, and the fact that we have the capability yet are moving backwards is unacceptable. As the globalization of business increases, we need increasing ways of remaining connected. We used to be able to get from New York to London or Paris in 3 hours, and the technology exists to facilitate travel to Tokyo in 5 hours. We will never get anywhere--both literally and figuratively--if we do not continue to invest in technology and infrastructure. The return on investment, however, will be immeasurable.