Albuquerque, Amtrak, Arkansas, Cascade Train, Chester PA, National Transportation Safety Board, Northeast Regional Philadelphia 2015, Point Defiance Bypass rail line, Southwest Chief, Woman in Wheelchair
By Noel T. Braymer
In recent news Amtrak has again caused injury to itself by being tone deaf. While the incident happened a few weeks ago, a story came out recently about an 82 year woman from California who was taking the Southwest Chief to visit a grandson in Arkansas. The woman spends much of her time in a wheelchair and often needed assistance to get to a bathroom. By the time she got to Albuquerque, New Mexico, Amtrak threw her off the train. The police were called which were vastly more helpful to this woman than Amtrak. The following is from the news report from KRQE Channel 13 in Albuquerque. “The officers said Amtrak staff told them the 82-year-old was “unfit for travel,” and that she was continuously asking for help getting up from her seat to use the restroom. Amtrak directed KRQE News 13 to its website, saying passengers like McDowell, who, for the most part, is wheelchair bound, should travel with someone at all times. While a spokesperson said leaving her behind in Albuquerque was a “last resort,” he said, “Amtrak crews are not required to provide personal care or assistance to passengers.” “She’s in a wheelchair, all her luggage there and basically left her in downtown Albuquerque to fend for herself with no family down here,” Officer Murphy said. McDowell said when the two officers showed up, they never left her sight and assured her she’d make it to Arkansas. ”
When it comes to public service, the police of Albuquerque are miles ahead of Amtrak. If this was such a problem, why wasn’t this addressed before this woman was allowed to board the train in California? What are Amtrak’s policy for providing assistance to handicapped passengers? This may well be a result of the drive to “save money” by Amtrak letting go of station agents at even some of their busier stations. Many transportation services offer assistance to passengers with special needs. This can include offering discounts or even travel at no additional cost for a travel companion for a handicapped person. But leaving an 82 year old woman stranded in Albuquerque was a totally tone deaf approach to public relations. The two policemen who helped Ms. McDowell stayed with her until she was able to board a flight back to California. The police contacted a charity that paid for her airfare.
For Amtrak, ignoring problems and then taking no responsibility when the problem blows up is nothing new. Also recently the National Transportation Safety Board published its final report on the deadly derailment of the Cascade train in Washington State in 2017 which was the first train run in public service on a new route. The crash was the result of the train going through a tight curve without slowing down which caused the train to fall off a bridge over the I-5 freeway resulting in the deaths of 3 people. From published news reports “The agency’s vice chairman, Bruce Landsberg, wrote in comments published with the final report Monday that the root cause was “extremely lax safety oversight, unclear responsibility, and poor training.” “There was a Titanic-like complacency and certainty exhibited by those tasked with the safety, operation and management of the Point Defiance Bypass rail line before the revenue service started in 2017,” Landsberg wrote. “The term ‘accident’ is inappropriate because that implies that this was an unforeseen and unpredictable event. It was anything but unforeseeable.”
There have been several avoidable accidents on Amtrak in the recent past. On April 3, 2016 the Palmetto crashed into a backhoe being used by Amtrak Maintenance of Way employees doing track work in Chester, Pennsylvania. This resulted in the death of 2 Amtrak employees and 41 injuries including passengers on the Palmetto. This “accident” was the direct result of the failure of Amtrak dispatching to follow safety procedures. At the change of shift the Night Shift failed to inform the Morning Shift that there was track work on the tracks at Chester. The red block on that track segment was lifted even though the track was occupied. But the biggest safety failure was the fact that the Maintenance of Way crew didn’t have a mandatory piece of safety equipment which should have been in place before work began. It would have put a red block on the track the crew was working on and would have stopped the Palmetto long before reaching the work crew. There was no excuse for this crash happening.
There was also in 2015 the derailment and crash of the Northeast Regional in Philadelphia when the train entered a curve at too high a speed. This resulted in 8 people being killed and more than 200 being injured. Much has been written about the engineer not slowing down for the curve. But human error is always possible. What was ignored was solutions to a such problem that had been in place with the signalling from the days of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The NEC for years before Amtrak had in cab signalling for speed control and Block signals. In 2015 much of this old signalling was still in service on the NEC. This old signalling would have detected the train was speeding and set off an emergency stop before the train entered the tight curve. While this signalling was still in place in 2015 on much of the NEC. It was not active on the track the Northwest Regional train was on. The Federal Railroad Administration demanded that before Amtrak ran any more trains on the NEC that it have the old signalling system in place on all tracks to prevent such an incident repeating itself. Since them the NEC now has Positive Train Control which has replaced the wired signalling system from the Pennsylvania with wireless connections.