Safe Trains

As regular readers may know, I’m a big fan of train travel. I intend to be taking a train home from New Orleans in less than a month. It will pass through Philadelphia, as do the trains I take to and from DC regularly.

And given the awful derailment of last week I’m sure all of us on the train will have a moment of held breath as we approach that curve, even though we know that statistically we’re probably still safer than if we were driving on a highway, and even though we know that the disaster has finally prompted long-promised speed controls on that curve, even while it hasn’t shaken loose the bare minimum funding we need to upgrade the whole system to keep pace with the rest of the world.

Many people have in response to the derailment held forth at some length about the terrible shame that is the underfunding of our train system, and how it not only makes us the laughingstock of the industrialized world, but also is, clearly, dangerous. So I won’t repeat what they had to say.

But here’s what else I’ll be wondering on that trip: when I return home to Albany, will my kids be able to meet me at the top of the stairs? Will they have been allowed to watch my train pull in, and others out, and feel the magic of the train yard, and imagine as they watch where a train might take them?

Or will they have been kept off the bridge and away from the windows by the recently added “heightened security” that allows only ticketed passengers into that hallway with the departure and arrival gates, distracted from waiting by candy in the concession shop instead of watching trains?

(I have received conflicting reports of just how total and permanent this new security set up is. Though I did place a few calls/emails to the Amtrak press office for verification over the past few days, they were not returned, which is probably not surprising due to the derailment. I’d thought maybe once service was restored they’d be excited to talk about anything other than that, but I hope for their sakes they were mostly home getting to take a long nap with their ringers off.)

In any case, getting more restrictive about who can walk where in that station is such a perfect example of our short-sighted, security-state-minded, ridiculously out-of-whack approach to risk assessment.

There are ways to put resources into the train system that will save lives, clearly, as we’ve had so recently and tragically pointed out to us—improve infrastructure and upgrade physical safety measures. (Oh, and get rid of those big tankers of hideously explosive fracked oil that should be left in the ground if we don’t want to bake ourselves out of a home.)

And then there’s security theater. Tell me, if anyone can walk down to the platforms in New York City’s Penn station, not to mention right up to the trains/tracks at any of the little stations in between, how meaningful can it really be to keep train travelers’ loved ones away from the bridge in Albany-Renssalaer? That’ll show ’em. Whoever ’em is.

Certainly the expense of a few added security officers in Albany-Rensselaer would not be enough by itself to make major infrastructure improvements, so it’s not a one-for-one budget tradeoff, but it’s still an example of the kind of optional expense that those who balk at paying for real safety allow to go by as a matter of course.

Plus there are the indirect costs that will come from the incremental effects of separating the next generation from some of the parts of the experience that lend it romance and allure. And that’s not to mention the costs of making train travel that much more like air travel by adding the indignities and hassles of these security charades. Trust me, being more like air travel, with the exception of shortening actual travel times, is not a positive for most of your riders.

Amtrak, we know you’re being screwed by an individualistic, oil-beholden government that doesn’t understand the fundamentals of public transit finance. You’re going to need us those of us who know that and those of us who take the train anyway to stick up for you. You need an active constituency, now more than ever. That means don’t alienate us. Don’t insult the intelligence of your loyal riders by suggesting that what we ought to be worried about is terrorist plots (or that a different ticket checkpoint location would really foil one).

Instead of obsessing about bad guys, maybe focus on the concrete experience of your riders. We’d love to be your advocates—to our legislators and our peers. Work with us here.

(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on May 21, 2015.)

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