Better Transit For All

Posted by Hayley Enoch
on Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The wreck of Amtrak 501 near Tacoma, Washington, has the usual condolences to the victims and calls to determine what set of circumstances could have sent a brand new locomotive, thirteen cars, and more than seventy human lives barreling down a highway embankment. This time, though, the response included an uncommon sentiment. This wreck, many in the railfan community reflected, felt far too personal.

Since Monday’s departure of the 501 was making its first run over a recently refurbish bypass intended to avoid other tracks congested by freight traffic, many local railfans were on board to celebrate the beginning of service on the new route.  The hours after the news broke were a frantic scramble of phone calls to check in on friends and scanning social media, hoping that the ones who had not picked up the phone had posted that they were safe.

By noon on Tuesday, all of my personal friends had been accounted for, but new outlets had begun to report the unthinkable: Among the three deceased two prominent railfans and passenger rail advocates, Zach Willhoite and Jim Hamre. The third victim has not been identified at the time of this posting.

It is always chilling when one is forced to reckon that a hobby they enjoy, that might even have become a passion and a means of making their living, does not carry a perfect guarantee of safety. Something about the set of circumstances that claimed Willhoite and Hamre, though, seems particularly cruel. The Cascade’s inaugural run into the new territory should have been a celebration, not the venue by which dozens of lives were ended or significantly altered. It should have been the joyous culmination of years of advocacy and effort and skilled construction, not the moment at which a long process of mourning and investigation and reevaluation of our infrastructure began. The deceased and injured wanted only to enjoy each other’s company and enjoy the occasion, not to become martyrs for their preferred method of transportation.  

Rail accidents that involve the sort of carnage that blocked the I-5 overpass are, thankfully, very rare. By 2017, we have innovated enough safeguards and streamlined the operating rules enough to move beyond the era where it was simply accepted that rail travel would require a certain amount of blood sacrifice. Knowing that makes it easy to take comfort in the statistics--travel by train is by far still the safest method of travel— but when incidents like this do happen, they are so shocking, so outside what is expected, that they almost rise to the level of feeling insulting.

Train operators of all kinds, be they revenue service like this one or special excursions, place an absolute premium on safety. That one is responsible for the care of hundreds of lives is enough to encourage caution. In the preservation community, we also operate with the keen understanding that all it will take is one incident to become unwelcome in the places we operate or perhaps bring a hobby to the hobby all together.

Still, despite these best practices, incidents like the wreck of the 501 make it hard to ignore that boarding a vehicle operated by someone other than ourselves means extending trust that we will arrive at our destination without harm.  The possibility that something will go wrong has become infinitesimally small, but it does still lurk in the background. Small but critical flaws can go undetected, and humans will remain, well, human.  

It isn’t possible to determine the cause of the wreck at the time of this writing, other than excessive speed was a factor, so this blog will refrain from speculating on what should have been done to avoid this disaster.   We are still in the interlude where it is obvious that something ought to be done, but there is no clear indication of where blame should be placed or what lapses in procedure ought to be fixed.

Maybe, at this juncture, the best way to respond to this is very much in the spirit of what two Zach Willhoite and Jim Hamre spent their lives asking other people to do: Listen. Take the lessons learned from past accidents and apply them. Listen to valid concerns raised by critics of the industry. Listen to investigators as they parse through the wreckage of the Cascade train. Listen to to innovators, who may present ideas to make the chances of disaster even more remote. Listen, and then use the lessons to advocate for better transit for all.

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