After three deadly train crashes in as many months last winter, people were quick to blame the agency in charge of the doomed trains: Amtrak.
Amtrak did operate the trains, but the truth is more complicated: The vast majority (almost 97 percent) of tracks that Amtrak uses to transport passengers actually belong to big private freight companies. This means that Amtrak doesn’t always have control over what goes down on the tracks.
And even if these freight railroads are at fault for an accident, it’s still government-subsidized Amtrak that’s likely to be on the hook for damages — thanks to secretive liability deals between the agency and the private companies whose infrastructure it depends on.
In 2008, Congress passed a law requiring all railroads to install Positive Train Control (PTC), a safety system to prevent crashes like the ones last winter. This was supposed to happen by 2015, but the freight railroads lobbied for more time. And now, a decade after the law, most tracks still don’t have PTC.
The National Transportation Safety Board is currently investigating those winter crashes to determine who’s at fault. They held hearings last week.
VICE News takes you on an animated ride to explain how America’s passenger trains run.
Illustration and animation by Joel Plosz.
This segment originally aired July 11, 2018 on VICE News Tonight on HBO.