The politics of infrastructure: When ignoring expertise leads to preventable tragedy

     Emergency personnel work the scene of a train wreck, Tuesday, May 12, 2015, in Philadelphia. An Amtrak train headed to New York City derailed and crashed in Philadelphia. (Matt Slocum/AP Photo)

    Emergency personnel work the scene of a train wreck, Tuesday, May 12, 2015, in Philadelphia. An Amtrak train headed to New York City derailed and crashed in Philadelphia. (Matt Slocum/AP Photo)

    Our ability to access and process data to answer important questions is being drowned in the ceaseless debate between know-it-alls and know-nothings. With the derailment of Amtrak 188, I got a lesson this week in just how difficult it can be to get lawmakers to respond to those answers appropriately and responsibly.

    In the age of both Big Data and anti-government dogma, there is a constant tension in the public discourse over the role of expertise in the crafting of policy to manage our shared infrastructure. With headlines such as “The Death of Expertise” and “Science Isn’t Settled by Majority Vote,” amazing leaps in our ability to access and process data to answer important questions are being drowned in the ceaseless debate between know-it-alls and know-nothings. And when tragedy strikes, the sharks begin to circle, using the public’s fear or grief or anger as tools or weapons. With the derailment of Amtrak 188, I got a lesson this week in just how easy these questions can be to answer and just how difficult it can be to get 21st century lawmakers to respond to them appropriately and responsibly.

    I am a transportation geographer and urban planner by training, with experience in the traffic industry. For the last year I’ve done graduate work on questions of multimodal transportation systems and the analysis and design of complex road and transit networks with an eye towards maximizing sustainability and efficiency. So while I’m speaking from experience, I am not a subject matter expert — which is what, I believe, makes this story all the more compelling.

    Last week, I assisted an undergraduate with his final project in Geographic Information Systems. (GIS is the set of software and techniques that allow for the deep analysis of geospatial data.) The student happened to be a railroad enthusiast, so his project was one of derailment risk and the effects on neighboring communities.

    You can probably see where this is going. We set up a GIS data model that looked at four major risk factors for derailment in Philadelphia: curves, switches, bridges, and locations of past derailments. About 1/3 of Philly’s rail infrastructure fell within at least one of those categories, but most are likely harmless. What really gives an indication of future danger is those segments that showed multiple risk factors. When we overlapped these and other data sets, one junction stood out above the rest, with all four risk factors: Frankford Junction, in Port Richmond. It’s a location that has a long history of derailments, including one in 1943 that killed 79 people and injured 117.

    When, less than a week later, Amtrak Northeast Regional No. 188 derailed at that very location, it took me aback. My heart grew heavy … but more than anything, it made me angry. Because if a couple of guys in a computer lab at a college can ask these sorts of questions with a surface-level analysis of publicly available data, then the actual subject matter experts certainly know about such problem locations and the appropriate preventive technologies. They just lack the ability or authority to act on them properly.

    A clear pattern begins to emerge: Our nation’s administrative agencies are being tasked with more than they can possibly handle under the budgets they’re allotted, and then take the fall when the lack of budgetary consideration leads to problems. This becomes the fuel for lawmakers to further starve the agency, which leads to more problems.

    Just Wednesday, Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) told Fox News that he would not vote for clearly necessary rail infrastructure improvements because, “… we can do better by saving more money [and] being more efficient.” That’s not exactly how things work, and the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee should know that.

    Investing in Amtrak, the NTSB, the Federal Railroad Administration, local and state and national transportation planners, and regulators of every field and area of expertise — THIS is keeping our country safe, just as much as these overseas interventions and ridiculously militarized police departments we always seem to have the money for.

    On Wednesday, the House voted against a Democratic amendment that would have funded implementation of Positive Train Control, a technology known since the 1980s to prevent such costly and fatal derailments. PTC would have automatically slowed Amtrak 188 to a safe speed for that curve. The NTSB has been recommending PTC for years. In 2008, a bipartisan coalition passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act, which mandated such a system be installed on the entire U.S. network by 2015 — without appropriating any funding for it. And since then, Tea Party-led congresses have continuously failed to allocate the necessary resources to install such obvious precautionary measures.

    Some skeptics claim that we should not be subsidizing rail infrastructure, but overlook the fact that highways are also publicly funded. Highways are seen as somehow different from rail, but both are vital to a 21st century economy. The public costs of the highway system are also hidden in oil subsidies and infrastructure creation and maintenance. Not to mention the inherent environmental costs of auto travel and the shared expense of emergency response.

    I was hesitant to write this commentary, frankly, because I didn’t want to risk stirring the media pot any further. What I “discovered” isn’t news. It’s a matter of public record, a simple low-level analysis, and the train derailment at Frankford Junction is not unprecedented. The NTSB knows that all too well, and its job is hard enough without baiting the 24-hour news machine with a story that can and will be spun in any number of ways.

    But in an age when simply claiming not to be an expert exempts leaders from acting on the advice of actual subject-matter authorities with a lifetime of experience, the need for voices of expertise is stronger than ever. As Woodrow Wilson wrote, “It is the object of administrative study to discover … what government can properly and successfully do, and … how it can do these proper things with the utmost possible efficiency and at the least possible cost either of money or of energy.” Ignoring those studies for short-term political expedience comes at a cost to society.

    All of this being said, rail travel is still one of the safest, easiest, most efficient, most sustainable, and per capita cheapest modes of transportation we have. And whereas some people may be scared off by events like these, it makes me double down on expertise. What rail transit needs is more riders and more voices — not a roll-back, but a real investment. Put people to work. Build more trains, better trains, lighter and cheaper and smarter and safer trains. And build the infrastructure to match them, a robust 21st century network worthy of a country that flippantly and loudly dares to call itself the greatest on the planet.

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