Here’s a riddle. There are two modes of transportation. Together they are the backbone of our economy, essential to Americans’ daily commutes and to the country’s growth.
There’s just one difference. Since 1990, over 900,000 more passengers have died traveling by one mode than by the other. That’s a 47,000 percent difference.
Guess which one people wring their hands over when there’s an accident?
If you guessed passenger trains, you’re correct. Even though they are the safer option, trains have dominated the national discussion since the December 1 Metro-North crash in the Bronx.
The crash left three people dead, and prompted a wave of criticism directed at Metro-North and its parent agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The National Transportation Safety Board launched an investigation into the “safety culture” of the organization, while the MTA pledged to improve the warning mechanisms that might have prevented a crash.
Meanwhile, Senators Chuck Schumer and Richard Blumenthal called on Metro-North to install cameras onboard its trains to monitor the engineers, a fix that seems tangential at best.
Well-meaning people can debate the merits of these changes all they’d like. Ultimately, though, they’re beside the point.
That’s because what the December 1 crash revealed isn’t that Metro-North lacks a “safety culture,” or that commuter trains are ticking time bombs when it comes to passenger safety. It’s that we’ve built up a culture in which we hold every form of transportation to an incredibly high safety standard—except the one that kills hundreds of us every day.
That, of course, is the automobile, the far more dangerous of the two modes in the aforementioned riddle.
This isn’t to say we should sell our cars and take to the rails in the name of safety. But what is always lacking in the national discussion that follows train, plane, and other non-car crashes is the most logical discussion of all: just how incredibly safe these means of transportation are.
And I mean very, very safe. Insanely safe. Think about it this way: every weekday about 300,000 people ride Metro-North. Until two weeks ago, not one passenger had ever been killed in an accident in the 30 years of the railroad’s existence. Across the country, fewer than 200 passengers have died since 1990 from train crashes. Meanwhile, 83 drivers died in car crashes last year in New York City alone.
Unfortunately, such misperceptions about safety can have very real negative consequences. When people see their senators on TV declaring the trains unsafe, they take to the road instead, raising the likelihood of crashes and fatalities. And in terms of legal implications, the punishment does not always fit the crime.
Take, for example, the safety mechanism known as Positive Train Control, which uses GPS and radio technology to prevent trains from colliding or operating at unsafe speeds.
Following a 2008 crash in California, Congress passed a law requiring most American railroads to implement PTC by 2015. Prior to December 1, Metro-North balked at the requirement, saying it was unnecessary and too expensive. Following the crash, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to resist any longer.
That is unfortunate because, while PTC would have prevented the crash on December 1, Metro-North estimates it will cost $1 billion to implement. And the federal government isn’t appropriating the money. Instead, the MTA is hoping to borrow the cash from the Federal Railroad Administration, sinking the agency further into debt at a time when it is already financing a couple of extremely expensive infrastructure projects.
More debt means higher fares, which in turn will push more would-be riders into their considerably more dangerous cars. Like the increased auto accident rate after the September 11 attacks, the result might be that PTC indirectly causes more deaths than it prevents.
We could avoid such overreactions if only we stopped to consider train travel in its proper context. To be sure, the three deaths on December 1 were three deaths too many, and an engineer “nodding off” is inexcusable. But the fact that Metro-North had such a safe history of sending multi-ton hunks of metal hurtling down century-old tracks everyday with hundreds of commuters aboard is one of the great feats of American passenger transportation. It’s a reason the New York area has remained economically competitive even as the country’s population has shifted westward.
For journalists looking for a story-behind-the-story, the proverbial “man asleep at the switch” putting passengers in danger will always have some appeal. But the other 99.9 percent of the time, it is worth remembering that when the alternative is the highway, the train is usually the safest place to be.