Amtrak: America's Unfortunate Rail Network
Accidents, outdated equipment, bad service, late trains, and lawsuits galore!
Where Amtrak Began
Following steam's exit from the main lines of America in the mid-late 1960s, passenger rail travel was enduring a severe downturn. With vast highway networks and automobiles connecting the nation by road, Americans lost the interest, or really the need, to travel on the United States' already outdated and slow rail system. Long-distance rail travel was also beginning to lose its luster, as new passenger jets became prominent in the skies over America. Along with this, the new unreliable and dirty diesels were rather unappealing to the traveling public. Railways that once relied upon their passenger services were suffering in this new world. Cargo lines helped take up the slack, but there was still a notable gap in profits across many railways in the US. By the end of the 1960s, the combined total of rail that served passenger rail fell to under 50,000 miles, and massive railroads like the Santa Fe were cutting passenger routes left, right, and center. Throughout the decade, ideas were dreamt up on how to save passenger railroading. At the dawn of 1970, the situation was dire for the nation's railways. By late June, Penn Central, one of the largest railroads in the United States, at the time, shut down 34 of its passenger routes to save itself from bankruptcy. In October, the saving grace of passenger rail went through Congress. This would turn the remainder of the nation's passenger rail services into one government-run super railway. Out of the 26 railways that could have joined the conglomerate, 21 eventually did. The Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970 would be the launching pad for what would become known as Amtrak.
A Tragic History
The Dupont train derailment that occurred on December 18th, 2017 outside of Tacoma, Washington. The accident killed 3. Photo from the Seattle Times.
Amtrak is, undoubtedly, the most unfortunate railroad in the civilized world. Everyone knows of Amtrak's terrible safety record, which tragically, has remained its hallmark for decades. Just over a month into operation, Amtrak suffered its first fatal accident in June of 1971. Due to a seized axle bearing, the train derailed at high speed in Salem, Illinois, killing 11 passengers and injuring 163. This would be a harbinger for things to come for the newly formed rail line. Nasty derailments would be an annual event for Amtrak, some due to driver error, some due to issues that were out of their control. Two incidents in October of 1979, one of which was at the fault of Amtrak, left 8 more dead. Incidents would continue to stack up over the next several years, seventeen resulting in injuries or deaths, before January 4th, 1987, when they would suffer their worst accident up to that point. Amtrak No. 94 was heading North to Boston and traveling quickly through the crisp Maryland afternoon. Heading in the opposite direction was a set of Conrail freight locomotives, moving South without cargo. The Conrail engines had moved onto the mainline, with the engineer completely ignoring the warning signals that were passing to the left and right of his locomotive. By the time he had slammed the brakes into emergency, it was too late. With the Amtrak most likely traveling in the region of 100 MPH, there was no way in stopping the collision. The engineer of No. 94, the lounge car Lead Service Attendant and 14 passengers were killed. Over the next five years, they would have four more fatal accidents, none of which were due to Amtrak's incompetence. The accident that would define Amtrak to the nation for decades to come would occur in 1993, deep within the bayous of South Alabama. In the early morning of September 22nd, 1993, a tugboat by the name of Mauvilla was making its way through the expansive Mobile River, when it made a wrong turn. The captain of the boat was inexperienced, and the vessel itself was severely underequipped, which led to the deviation in course. At 2:45 AM, one of the barges he was pushing hit something. What it hit, was the Big Bayou Canot railway bridge. To the South, passing through Mobile, Alabama, was one of Amtrak's premier long-distance trains, the Sunset Limited. As the Amtrak thundered into the swamp, they had no idea of knowing that the bridge that they were heading towards was damaged.
The wreckage of the Sunset Limited, with rescuers looking for survivors and casualties. Photo from AL.com.
At 2:53 AM, the Sunset Limited passed onto the Bayou Canot bridge at 70 MPH. Upon reaching the other side, it derailed at the warped rails. The first locomotive plowed into one of the spans, causing half of the bridge to fall into the waters below. In America's worst rail accident since the Newark Bay Bridge accident in 1958, the wreck of the Sunset Limited claimed the lives of 47 passengers and crew. This would leave a permanent black eye on the railroad, one that it did not deserve. Ever since that tragic morning in Mobile, Amtrak has received ire from the railroading community, more than they had previously. Following 1993, the rest of the decade would not be kind to the rail line. Just over two years separated from the Big Bayou Canot accident, the Sunset Limited would be involved in another national incident. Outside of the town of Palo Verde in Arizona, the Sunset Limited was about to cross a bridge over a small riverbed. Without warning the train violently jumped the tracks and derailed into the sand below. One person was killed, and another 78 were injured. Many thought it was just another derailment caused by natural factors. However, something much more sinister was at play. Four notes would be found in the days following the wreck, all aimed at the ATF and FBI for their actions during the Waco Siege two years prior. The saboteurs knew what they were doing too. The wires to the warning system that would alert the engineer of the locomotive that the tracks had been tampered with had been rerouted before the tracks were moved. The suspects have never been found, and a reward for $310,000 still stands for their capture. Things would only get worse for Amtrak as 1995 turned to 1996, as on February 16th, the Silver Springs collision would occur in Maryland.
What remains of MARC cab car 7752, the leading engine on the MARC commuter train that collided with the Capitol Limited. Photo from the NTSB.
A Maryland Area Regional Commuter Rail (MARC) commuter train, No. 286, was making its way down the Brunswick line traveling eastbound. Traveling in the opposite direction, further down the line, was Amtrak's Capitol Limited running from Washington to Chicago. Approaching Georgetown Junction, the MARC locomotive was warned by a signal to stop and allow the Amtrak train to switch off of track two. For unknown reasons, the MARC crew ignored the signal and continued thundering down the line. As the Limited was switching tracks, the MARC locomotive came into view, heading straight for them. At 5:39 PM, the two trains collided. Tragically, the majority of the 11 deaths on that day were not a result of the collision, but from the diesel-fueled fire that was caused by the Amtrak locomotive's ruptured fuel tanks. This accident gave way to a lot of safety features you see on trains today, like quick releases for doors and windows, exits and passageways being marked by luminescent material, etc. This was also one of the accidents that helped lead to the development of, what we know today as, Positive Train Control, which would have prevented this accident. The 90s would strike one more devastating blow to Amtrak in 1999 when a tractor-trailer carrying steel attempted to beat the City of New Orleans to a grade crossing. The train, which was traveling at 79 miles per hour, slammed into the trailer at 9:47 PM. All but a handful of coaches derailed and piled up down the line. Eleven people were killed. The 90s were not kind to Amtrak. Over the span of 13 noteworthy accidents (some fatal, some non), a total of 80 passengers and crew were killed with another 1,517 being injured.
The final Amtrak AEM-7-pulled train blasts across the Susquehanna River on June 18th, 2016. Photo from Emily Moser.
The new millennium started well for Amtrak, going without any serious incidents for almost two years until February of 2001. A non-fatal train collision between a CSX freight train and the Empire Service injured 62. A little over one month later, Amtrak's first fatality of the 2000s would occur when the California Zephyr derailed in Iowa. A year later, Amtrak's legendary Auto Train would suffer a high-speed derailment in Florida, killing four. Following a 2004 derailment, Amtrak would have a fatality-free run for over seven years where no one would be killed on board an Amtrak train. The 2000s actually proved to be one of Amtrak's safest years, with the majority of incidents being rather minor. As the world entered the 2010s, however, Amtrak's bad luck would resurface with a vengeance. In June of 2011, a tractor-trailer hit the California Zephyr (yes, you read that right) at a grade crossing in rural Nevada, due to bad brakes and distractions. A total of six, including the truck driver, were killed. Almost four years later, one of the most infamous Amtrak accidents would occur on the Northeast Corridor, just outside of Philadelphia.
The mangled wreckage of one of the Amfleet coaches from Amtrak Regional 188 being combed by first responders for survivors. Photo from CBS.
On May 12th, 2015, a routine Amtrak regional train departed 30th street station in Philidelphia at 9:10 PM. 13 minutes later, the train would derail at 102 miles per hour at Frankford Junction, Northeast of downtown Philly. Unlike many of Amtrak's prior accidents, this one was entirely at the fault of an Amtrak employee. The engineer, Brandon Bostian, was only on the line for around three weeks preceding that accident and had not memorized exactly where key sections of track were. Along with this, a fellow regional train up the line had been struck by rocks that were thrown by local youths, injuring the engineer. These two factors most likely caused him to become distracted, and miss the 50 miles per hour speed limit warning signs that were trackside. This resulted in the deaths of eight passengers. This accident would become another rallying cry for the universal introduction of Positive Train Control (PTC) on Amtrak, and every other rail line in the United States. The most recent accident that was directly caused by Amtrak personnel was just outside of Tacoma, when an Amtrak Cascades train plummeted off an overpass and onto Interstate 5, killing three on board. One more accident at the beginning of 2018 in South Carolina would close out the tragic chapter of the 2010s for Amtrak. From 2000 to 2020, Amtrak had a total of 20 noteworthy incidents, resulting in 36 total fatalities and 1,047 injuries.
Hope for the Future?
The new Avelia Liberty getting put through its paces on the Northeast Corridor. Photo via Reddit.
To say that Amtrak is looked at poorly by the public today would be an understatement. Aside from their regional trains, most Amtrak journies are usually late by hours. The equipment, especially on long-distance trains, is severely outdated and not in the best shape. Over the last decade or so, the Northeast Corridor has seen some improvements. The old reliable AEM-7 was retired in favor of the more modern ACS-64, and the aging Acela is about to be phased out with the all-new Avelia Liberty. For long-haul trains, the new Siemens Charger is slowly replacing most of the mainstay General Electric P40s that have served their respective lines for decades. However, these are only bandaids for a much bigger problem: America's rail network as a whole. Following World War II, the majority of American travel was beginning to move away from the rails. Highway networks began to spring up all across the United States, eventually usurping the railroads in popularity and practicality. This would remain the case for decades afterward, demoting rail service to mainly focus on cargo and freight just to stay in business. In the late 90s, however, commuter rail began to gain popularity in many American cities. By the late 2010s, it had become the premier way of getting around most major cities in the United States, circumventing the heinous roadway traffic that plagues many urban environments. Most commuter rail services and all-new popup ventures have had better success and cleaner safety records than Amtrak over recent times. Their service quality is usually better rated, and their machinery is often more modern and well kept. Are Amtrak's days finally numbered?
What's Ahead, and what I think
An Amtrak inspection train crosses over the Biloxi Bay rail bridge in 2019 in preparation for its eventual return to the Gulf Coast. Photo from the Bigger Pie Forum.
Well, from the looks of things, no. Pre-shutdown, Amtrak's ridership was reaching all-time highs, with more and more hopping on board every year. The Northeast Corridor continues to be their main cash cow, providing consistent service for many along the Eastern Seaboard. American politics appear to also be pivoting towards helping the government-funded railroad, especially as the "green movement" continues to permeate the political climate. Old lines are also slated to return to Amtrak's routes, including that of the Gulf Coast, which has not seen passenger service since Hurricane Katrina decimated the region in August of 2005. Even with all of this great news, I don't see much changing. The reason being America's already existing rail network. The busy rail lines of America are some of the most unique in the world. The US built and expanded the nation by rail, with many of those original lines becoming vast corridors today. Having such historically significant rails still around, comes with some drawbacks though. The paths they take are not the most straightforward in the world. Sure, the scenery on some of these lines is second to none, but the time that is lost snaking about at less than 40 miles per hour is an issue. Completely reworking our rail network with electrification, modernized lines, or anything else would put the United States in more debt than it is already in. There are multiple independent ventures in the works currently to provide some form of high-speed rail around some of America's city centers, but I predict many of these will fall through. So, what is my idea to fix this? Should we abolish Amtrak, or abandon national rail travel altogether? No, quite the opposite.
A Metra commuter train passes by Barrington Station in Barrington, Illinois. Photo from Progressive Railroading.
I say, let the big boys fight once more. Some national railways already have their hands in the commuter market, and know that taking it national could hold great financial success. Let Amtrak, CSX, BNSF, Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern, and whoever else wants to be involved rule the rails and bring passengers from sea to shining sea. More times than not, competition breeds quality, and with a national passenger expansion, thousands of jobs as well! Ridership would increase, quality of rail travel would increase, and most likely, the lines themselves would greatly increase in efficiency and quality. Also, every line would be required to run at least one steam engine on revenue service, but that's just something I'd like to see.
So, what do you guys think? Is Amtrak here to stay, or will we see a battle of the railroads once again? Let me know down in the comments below! As always, thank you all for reading, bumping, and following, and I will see you down the road!