Amtrak: A Profit-Driven Tragedy

Last Tuesday an Amtrak train derailed, killing eight passengers and wounding 200 others. Quick to assure the public that nothing is wrong with the Amtrak system, politicians and the media agreed on their reason for the crash: “Engineer Error.” They want us to believe this crash happened because of a neglectful train engineer, who took a 50 mph turn at around 106 mph. But that’s not the whole story.

Engineer Brandon Bostian, a train engineer for over ten years, was exhausted by the time he was on that second run that crashed Tuesday night. On his first run, as soon as the train left the yard, there was a “cab signal failure.” This is a system that gives the engineer all sorts of warnings, including speed warnings, slowdown alerts, approaching trains, and more. A train is not allowed to leave the yard if a cab signal failure is identified. But supposedly this one happened right after Bostian left.

This meant Bostian had to operate the train fully manually, observing and interpreting all the signals. And there was no backup whatsoever if he missed a crucial signal because it was obscured from view or he was just momentarily distracted. This means his first run took longer and was mentally exhausting.

And as most workers know: when we’re supposed to get a break in between work, if we run over, it just means our break is even shorter – workers at BART and AC Transit know this very well. And it’s no surprise that Amtrak management consistently violates the mandatory 90-minute break between runs. Bostian was scheduled to have a 90-minute break between runs but because of the signal error, he got no more than 60 minutes.

In theory, train engineers can ask for relief if they are too exhausted but there is no guarantee that they will get it, and there is enormous pressure not to do it. As most workers know – management likes to keep staffing low and instead pressures workers not to call out, whether it be for sickness, fatigue, family reasons, or any reason at all.

And this same stretch of track was the site of one of the worst rail crashes in the U.S. history in 1943, killing over 75 people. This stretch was known for being a dangerous turn. It even had speed control systems installed at the same curve but going the other direction – on the southbound side. Speed controls are part of an electronic monitoring system that can control the speed of the train, blocking it from going over the speed limit. Had there been a speed control installed on the northbound side, this crash couldn’t have happened.

Amtrak train engineers favor speed controls because they work. There should have been one on the northbound side but Amtrak never wants to spend the money – profits are always more important. Only now, after the crash, Mr. Boardman, Amtrak CEO, claims that speed controls will be increased throughout the system. But there are already countless other upgrades and repairs that should be made to Amtrak – fixing all the tracks, safety improvements, longer breaks for drivers, increased hiring. It shouldn’t have to take more tragedies just to do what is already necessary.

This is a familiar story in the Bay Area at BART. Whole sections of the track should be replaced but aren’t. Regular maintenance isn’t getting done. Management isn’t hiring new mechanics and electricians when they leave. A lot of repairs only happen after something breaks. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.

The problems in transit are a glimpse of how our society operates every day. Profit comes first, and everything else comes second or not at all. Corporations will risk disaster before risking their bottom line. The reason for the crash at Amtrak was not “engineer error” – it was the error of a system that will do anything to make a profit.

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