Editorial: Preventable Amtrak crashes are a national problem and also a serious issue for Chicago

·5 min read

Crashes involving Amtrak trains appear rare. But the reality, especially west of Chicago, is that Amtrak trains themselves are infrequent. They run just three or four times a day to most Midwestern destinations. The great long-distance trains that head out west from Chicago — they have names like the Empire Builder, the California Zephyr and the Southwest Chief — run no more than once a day. Given that, they seem to hit trouble strikingly often.

Pain certainly came the way of the 200 or so passengers, including a troop of Wisconsin Boy Scouts, riding through Missouri Monday on the Chief. For the second time in two days, an Amtrak train struck a vehicle at a crossing. The accident cost at least four people their lives and sent 150 Amtrak travelers to hospital, some with very serious injuries. Imagine the outcry if something like that happened in the air, with one incident, involving the same common carrier, happening just one day after another.

The issue of train safety is, of course, a serious national issue, and incidents are far more frequent than is the case with the thousands of aircraft in U.S. airspace. Where Amtrak is concerned, it’s also a local issue since Amtrak’s Midwest operation is centered on Chicago and trains originate and terminate in Union Station. Any time there is an accident involving a long-distance train, the probability is high that residents of Illinois will feel the impact. And for that reason alone, this crisis deserves a lot more immediate attention from our local political leaders.

The reality is that most of these incidents are not Amtrak’s fault. In the case of this week’s disaster near Mendon, Missouri, a dump truck wandered onto the tracks as the train came roaring down the line. Few passenger trains, as is the case in northern Missouri, means that people don’t expect one coming down the rails and are incapable of judging that the passenger trains move at higher speed than freight trains.

Incredibly, though, the crossing was without crossing arms or signal lights and easily missed among the encroaching brush. We’ll wager a good percentage of people reading this editorial had no idea such blind crossings existed on lines where Amtrak trains travel at 79 miles an hour or more. In fact, The Kansas City Star reported, citing a report by the Missouri Department of Transportation, around half of all the rural railroad crossings in the state lack the kind of ubiquitous warning systems you find in urbanized northern Illinois. The Star quoted a local farmer who said he’d been predicting disaster at this very crossing, and those like it, for a long time.

How hard can it be to put up lights and barriers at these rural crossings to save lives? If this were the tracks between New York and Washington, would we be in this situation?

By way of context, we cite a recent report in Vice with the provocative headline, “Amtrak Spent 11 Years and $450 Million to Save Acela Riders 100 Seconds.”

The report homes in on the amount of money spent to upgrade some 16 miles of track in New Jersey, saving riders about 90 seconds in travel time as the train can now hit 165 miles per hour for a few moments instead of 130, meriting a news release.

It’s not an entirely fair report, in that the investment is part of a bigger and incrementally achieved push for so-called higher speed rail, but its basic critique of misplaced priorities is not without merit.

Massive amounts of money are being spent on the Northeast Corridor, which is where most of Amtrak’s business resides, but meanwhile the state of Missouri doesn’t even have arms on its grade crossings. It’s absurd. In Europe and Asia, at-grade crossings as a species are rarities on passenger lines, let alone mainline intersections without warning equipment. This crazy situation demands the immediately attention of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

Sure, the solution looks complicated: Amtrak has control over most of its trackage in the Northeast Corridor, but out west it travels on freight railroads, all of which are different shades of uncooperative with passenger rail, despite the weakly enforced federal mandate that they be otherwise. Trains and rails are a patchwork of private ownership and public subsidy, federal control and state investment, private interests and government cash. That last category includes a lot of new money, though, in infrastructure investment and pandemic recovery funds.

So here’s a modest proposal from the heart of the Midwest, a proud railroading city and a train-supportive editorial board. Let’s get lights and arms on crossings. And let’s do it, not in 11 years, but right now. If need be, bring in the National Guard to help get the job done.

As we well know in Chicagoland, where people drive around barriers often, those warning systems, even with cab warning systems in addition, won’t prevent every accident.

It would also help if people were less idiotic, less glued to their phones in their vehicles and more aware of their surroundings. But lights and barriers likely would have saved four lives on Monday and protected scores of people who just wanted to ride the train to Chicago, but got potentially years of trauma for their trouble.

Imagine the scene at Union Station as loved ones who had not heard about the crash came to wait for people on that train.

Buttigieg has said he’d like to be president. Surely he has the clout to get some arms and lights installed in the Midwest. Was he not once mayor of South Bend?

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