In what some are calling “the Titanic of train wrecks,” Monday’s deadly crash of the inaugural run of a new higher-speed passenger Amtrak train between Seattle and Portland will certainly cause some to question the viability of improving rail transportation along the Interstate 5 corridor. Horrific as it was, we should not be so quick to give up.
The loss of life was tragic, along with injures suffered by dozens of other passengers, crew and passing motorists. Economic damage also will substantial, with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee declaring a state of emergency in two counties. Traffic delays, reconstruction costs, equipment damage and inevitable lawsuits will easily add up into the tens of millions against a rail-improvement project that had a budget of about $181 million.
Investigation of precisely what caused the derailment will takes weeks, if not months. It is, however, safe to say that officials can never be overly careful when it comes to ensuring all assumptions are correct and all risks have been mitigated to the maximum extent possible. But just as passenger steamships didn’t collapse as an industry following the Titanic disaster, neither will the move toward high-speed rail end due to this incident.
The failing race to address traffic congestion by adding more lanes to I-5 — a strategy particularly prevalent in Washington state — has about reached its inevitable conclusion. There must continue to be steps toward better mass-transit options throughout the interconnected megalopolis stretching between Vancouver, B.C. and the mid-Willamette Valley.
This isn’t necessarily to say that European or Japanese-style ultra-high-speed rail lines are the immediate answer. In an example of supremely bad timing, just last week consultants estimated such a line connecting Vancouver and Portland could cost up to $42 billion — somewhat more than Oregon’s current total annual state spending. Massive federal aid would be required. Infrastructure spending on such a scale — not yet counting other steps that would be needed to link communities to the new train — are almost impossible to imagine in today’s national political environment.
In a longer time frame — and assuming we resist wasting more trillions on pointless foreign wars — rapid economic growth in this region may fully justify such a massive expenditure.
Ultra-high-speed rail, depending on the technology used, brings speeds of up to 270 mph — compared to the 81 mph Monday’s Amtrak train was estimated to be traveling. Such amazing speeds are facilitated by dedicated routes, including some partially or totally underground. These trains have outstanding safety records in other countries, and are certainly far safer than traveling by highways in private vehicles.
While we await such marvels, it’s vital to learn from whatever mistakes were made leading up to Monday’s crash. The remainder of the Seattle-Portland route must be intensely examined. Technology and protocols must be implemented to further minimize the potential for human error.
In our rush toward a brighter future for mass transit, let us not get into such a big hurry that lives are needlessly sacrificed. But after every precaution is taken, we must try again.