There but for the grace of G-d….
That was my initial reaction on hearing about the train crash outside of Philadelphia on Monday – because I was scheduled to be on another Amtrak train on the same route a few days later. But beyond the shock and distress that accompanies any tragic accident – always amplified when one is more directly connected – there was no surprise.
Indeed, I am loathe to write about anything to do with infrastructure in the US, because every time I come here I am struck again by how decrepit and backward the country is. But I have repeatedly addressed this theme in columns over the years. However, when the subject gets up and hits you in the face, you can’t just ignore it.
Calling what happened this week “a tragedy” is a misnomer, a cop-out and, in many senses, a lie. Tragedies imply that what happened was unavoidable, when in fact it is already abundantly clear that it was eminently avoidable.
In the new American idiom, it was “totally” avoidable.
That is so because: a) it appears that the train was running at over 100 miles per hour, when it should have been doing 50 and, in any event, less than 80; b) there is a system that would have alerted the train and/or the controllers to the danger and forced it to slow down and thus prevented the derailment – but this system had not been installed yet on that stretch of track.
The reason it had not yet been installed is, of course, budgetary, and that brings us straight to the money aspect.
Amtrak is a decrepit, backward transportation system that no Western European country would allow to function (let’s not even talk about Japan). This is well known and has been a subject of political debate in the US for years.
But that is just the point – Amtrak, and public transportation in general, are political issues and, as such, are the victims of the general political paralysis that has enveloped more and more areas of policy in the US.
The very next day after the accident, the Republican majority in Congress cut $252 million from Amtrak’s budget.
Needless to say, the Democrats and the liberal media came down on that like a ton of bricks, and, equally needless to say, the Republicans (and their media) dismissed the idea that there was any link between the funding (past and future) and the accident. Both sides are being disingenuous, because there obviously is a link. But, equally, if the train was doing double the speed it should have been at, that must have been the cause – or at least a major factor in – the accident.
But both the proximate cause – speeding – and the wide issue of poor maintenance and general decrepitude are relevant to the debate. If indeed the train was speeding, that didn’t just happen – the driver, or engineer, or whomever, caused it and he or they are responsible. Will he or they face charges of murder? Or manslaughter? Or something? Probably not, just as policemen who kill people needlessly get off free in America.
So much, then, for the idea of personal responsibility, which the Republicans are keen on trumpeting as a reason to cut or eliminate welfare and not to provide health care to people who don’t pay for it. As for the goal of privatizing Amtrak, which is the rationale behind starving it of funds, that is a leading example of mouthing slogans that are detached from reality – libertarian la-la land – but who cares, since most of the Amtrak travelers are in the northeast corridor and vote Democrat.
The link between cuts in funding, underinvestment, poor maintenance and crashes is clear and obvious, so that voting consistently for cutting funding means creating a situation in which crashes become more likely and, eventually, inevitable. Of course, it always needs a proximate cause like speeding, so if you were to say that voting for cuts condemned people to death, that would be cheap and crude populism. Nevertheless, we can expect to hear exactly that from the Democrats sooner or later.
Yet the people who prevent investment in safety systems for trains are the same people who prevent investment in preventative health-care systems and other systems that ultimately save lives. They are Republicans.
Meanwhile, the people who block action against delinquent drivers and engineers are the same people who block action against incompetent teachers in failing schools and, often, block action against thugs and murderers in police uniforms. They are Democrats.
The two rival sets of dogma – to call them “ideologies” is an insult to ideas – are gradually but steadily paralyzing government, poisoning the public sector and dragging down the whole country. It doesn’t have to be this way, which is why the overall state of the US is a tragedy, over and above the specific incidents that highlight the relentless decline. From police brutality to railway maintenance to the developing health crisis – none of this is necessary and none should exist, on anything like the current scale.
There is data emerging from the UK regarding obesity that shows that education and preventative care is having an impact and that the tide is turning. America, meanwhile, is drowning in its own fat, incompetence and callousness – all covered by “ideology.”