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Amtrak Passenger and Staff Ease Stands in Sharp Contrast to Rail Safety Stats

Amtrak riders Wednesday said they felt safe despite increasing safety problems and a lack of government investment in infrastructure.
Photo by Colleen Curry/VICE News

Tuesday's deadly train derailment in Philadelphia that left eight dead has thrust a shaky Amtrak safety record, which includes nine derailments so far this year, into the political spotlight, with legislators now calling for better funding for infrastructure improvements.

Amtrak is government-subsidized and run as a for-profit company, which puts it in the often thorny position of being a national asset and providing a crucial service used by millions of travelers, tourists, and business commuters — particularly on the popular Washington, DC, to Boston Northeast corridor route — but also a political football. Politicians have debated Amtrak's funding for years, and as recently as Wednesday, Congressional Republicans defeated a Democratic proposal to increase funding.

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Despite Tuesday's deadly crash, at New York's Penn Station and aboard an Amtrak train that departed into New England fewer than 24 hours after the derailment, passengers and staff alike told VICE News they felt safe and unconcerned about the accident, the company's troubling safety record, and the state of train infrastructure in the United States.

"I'm not really nervous," said Adam Green of Colorado, who was traveling with his wife and two children on vacation. "I've taken it enough and I haven't had any problems. It's pretty safe to travel over all. This seems isolated, and at least with trains you know some people survive, compared to in a plane crash."

Green said he feels that the Amtrak system's infrastructure "probably needs some updating," but that he's never heard of too many safety problems with Amtrak, even when he used to live in New York and Boston.

A 30-plus-year veteran employee who declined to give his full name told VICE News, "I feel very safe and I've made that trip to DC probably 8,000 times in my career."

"What do you expect me to say? I wouldn't be here if I didn't feel safe," another employee told VICE News, while a third simply said, "I'm good."

A few Amtrak employees declined to give their names — one cited the company's strict policy against employees discussing the company — but they all stressed they had no real concerns about the trains or infrastructure, and the passengers on board Wednesday didn't seem to have any reservations either. The employee with more than 30 years of service under his belt stressed that Amtrak bosses are obsessed with safety and speed control, noting that every mile of a trip is documented and reviewed.

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Related: Amtrak Train was Belting Along the Tracks at Twice the Speed Limit When It Derailed

Despite this general feeling of ease, the Federal Railroad Administration's Office of Safety Analysis (FRA), a small agency that primarily monitors railroads' compliance with federal safety regulations through routine inspections, estimates that its inspectors have the ability to annually inspect less than 1 percent of the railroad activities covered in regulation, according to a December 2013 report by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO).

There have been nine derailments in 2015, compared with six at this time in 2014, and accidents have risen each year for the past three years, according to the FRA. Many have been minor, but there is a clear increasing frequency with which trains jump the tracks. Ultimately, the risk associated with train travel has been increasing in recent years.

Robert Sumwalt, spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), who was on the scene Wednesday at the derailment in Philadelphia, said that the NTSB has for years been recommending safety precautions, including Positive Train Control (PTC), which allows computers to automatically slow trains that are speeding due to human error. The PTC system has not been installed on the stretch of track in the Port Richmond section in Philadelphia where the train derailed on Tuesday. It was traveling at twice the speed limit.

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"We have called for Positive Train Control for many, many years," Sumwalt said Wednesday evening. "It's on our most wanted list, and Congress has called for it to be installed by end of the year. I believe that had such a system been installed on this part of the track, this accident would not have occurred."

Though Congress has called for the system to be installed by the end of 2015, many railroads — which includes not only Amtrak but local commuter rail lines such as New Jersey Transit — have said they won't be able to install it by then, according to a June 2013 GAO report. The report said that 3 out of 4 major railroad companies said they would not have the capacity to install the systems until at least 2017.

The topic of whether Amtrak is safe enough has permeated public policy debates about the government-subsidized, for-profit rail company from its inception. On Wednesday, the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee voted to cut Amtrak's funding by nearly 20 percent, and declined to fund an amendment that would have paid for PTC. The last reauthorization bill for Amtrak expired in 2013 and a new one has not been passed since.

When asked how she knew trains were safe, Kaylen Chung, who was traveling to Boston from New York, said that she had researched the safest place to sit on the train the night before, after she heard about the accident and before her own Amtrak trip today, and found a magazine article discussing train safety.

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"The expert in 'Popular Science' said trains are safe. I mean, more attention wouldn't be a bad thing but there are a lot of things that need attention," she said.

Many of the customers on the midday trains to Boston and New York were from overseas, traveling in the US on vacation. A family from Norway stranded at Penn Station after their train to DC was cancelled said there was no noticeable difference between European and American train safety, and they were not nervous about taking Amtrak in the future.

"This is the first time I would have taken it," John Meredith, traveling from England with his wife en route to visit family in Connecticut, told VICE News. "I'm assuming it's pretty much the same as the UK, liable to cancellations. Delays are usually people laying on the tracks, you know, suicide, and apart from that, stoppages are often from engineering. Very seldom it's crashes."

A group of EMS and FDNY first responders traveling from New York to Boston for a vacation said they didn't feel unsafe at all, but their training prepared them to deal with the worse. They said they purposefully chose their seats — right next to the door — and plotted out their exit points as soon as they sat down.

"We've already been talking about how we would exit, where the windows are," Mary Vanicky said, then gestured to one of the women with her.

"You pull that lever, I'll throw her through. We figured it all out," she said to laughter.

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"We train purposefully for haz-mat scenarios on trains, so we feel safer," Laure Mazzeo said.

Other passengers simply said they couldn't waste time worrying about train safety.

"I'm an optimist, what's going to happen will happen, you can't waste your life worrying," Nancy Erickson, of New Jersey, told VICE News.

"You can go anywhere, anytime anymore. You just have to hope for the best," Marjorie Watson, who was traveling with Erickson, said.

VICE News's Eric Fernandez contributed to this report.