Early Thursday morning, September 29, 2016, a commuter train crashed into a train station in Hoboken New Jersey, killing one woman and injuring 108 passengers and commuters waiting at the station. The train, packed with passengers and barreling at an excessive speed, struck a bumper block at 8:45 a.m. and flew off the rails, killing 34-year-old Fabiola Bittar de Kroon who had just dropped her 18-month-old daughter Julia off at daycare.
Julia will grow up never knowing her mother. It didn’t have to be this way.
If computer systems can autopilot airplanes and navigate driverless cars, why can’t a centralized computer system monitor train speeds and slow them down if they go too fast? Why isn’t there a system in place to do this? It turns out there is. It’s called Positive Train Control (PTC) and it’s been around for more than two decades.
PTC monitors trains in transit and hits the train brakes if the engineer misses a signal to stop. You would think this would be an excellent system to require on all U.S. trains. Congress thought so too; that’s why it mandated PTC in September 2008, exactly eight years ago. Congress created the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) program, providing $35 billion in federal funds to lend money at low interest rates for railroads to improve their infrastructure. It enables the Federal Railroad Administration to offer direct loans or loan guarantees of up to $3.5 billion to state or local governments.
RIFF is not new. It was first authorized in 1976. Today, RIFF has $35 billion available to states and local governments to develop and improve railway infrastructure. So far, since 1998, only $1 billion of that amount has been claimed. This is not a case of not having enough money available for infrastructure improvement; it’s just sitting there waiting for takers.
So why isn’t it being used? Last year, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority received nearly $1 billion in federal loans to implement PTC on its two commuter lines. But NJ Transit has not installed PTC in Hoboken or elsewhere on its train network – despite a previous crash at the Hoboken station in 2011 when another commuter train also hit the bumper block and injured 30 commuters. Despite the fact NJ Transit ranks second in the nation in train accident reports: 271 accidents, or 18% of the total train accidents in America.
NJ Sen. Cory Booker introduced a bill to update and improve RIFF a year and a half ago – about the time baby Julia was born – and stated, “New Jerseyans deserve safe and reliable public transit options. I am encouraged that Amtrak and commuter rail ridership continues to grow in New Jersey, and I am committed to advocating for long-term investments in the economic strength, stability, and vitality of the Northeast Corridor rail system.” According to govtrack.us, which tracks the status of bills introduced in Congress, the bill was introduced on March 19, 2015 and referred to a congressional committee on the same day “which will consider it before possibly sending it on to the House or Senate.” It's still languishing there, a year and a half later, according to Govtrack.us.
“Until we know the cause of the accident we're not going to be able to know what steps we can take in the future to avoid an accident like this," NJ Gov. Chris Christie said.
I have a suggestion for you, Gov. Christie. You can begin by using the federal funds available to implement PTC on all New Jersey trains, as should every state in the country. Public transportation should be safe and it is your primary job as governor to ensure the safety of your citizens. That goes for every governor in every state, and every representative and senator in Congress. The safety of Americans is your number one priority.
America’s crumbling infrastructure – its roads, bridges, and transportation systems – are one of the most important public issues we face… But you wouldn’t know it to listen to any of the political debate going on in this country right now, 30 days before an election. Our entire political system has gone off the rails. It is time for the American people to focus on this important priority and to insist that our politicians, both elected and running for office, do the same. We need to create programs and authorize funding to develop and improve American infrastructure – and then we need to actually use those funds and programs. We owe it to ourselves and we owe it to Fabiola Bittar de Kroon. Most importantly, we owe it to baby Julia and her generation that will inherit our crumbling infrastructure.