ACRU

Disaster: From Target Cashier to Amtrak Engineer

Capitol Building at sunset

This column by ACRU Policy Board Member J. Christian Adams was published May 14, 2015 by PJ Media.

The Amtrak disaster in Philadelphia has reminded us of old lessons, and taught us things we didn’t know.

First the latter category. At Amtrak, it’s possible to go from a cashier at Target to being the engineer driving a train 107 miles an hour. I’ve known people afraid to fly who take Amtrak instead. Maybe the decisions of 32-year old Engineer Brandon Bostian will spark a new perspective.

Before he was placed in command of a 700 ton train carrying nearly 300 people, Bostian was a cashier at Target.

Let’s compare Amtrak to an airline. Usually, the pilot flying a plane carrying upwards of 300 people has spent years training on props, years on smaller jets with a few dozen passengers, and years in the right-hand seat of larger jets before being placed in control of so many lives. Airlines are stacked with redundancy, even in the cockpit.

Some might scold—well a train is different, it is less complicated. Perhaps, but we learned this week that a train really isn’t that different when it comes to the thin line between life and death. Decisions up front matter.

Which leads to the question—why was this 32 year old roaring down the tracks at 107 miles per hour when the limit was 80, dropping to 50? Was he texting, as is so common with his generation? Was he simply making up for being late, as is so common at Amtrak?

Either way, I’ll take the greying captain of a A320 instead next time I go to New York. Give me Chesly Sullenberger any day over Brandon Bostian.

An aside—some internet bottom feeders are making much of Bostian being a “gay activist.” I’d imagine they think it somehow hurts other gay activists that one gay activist drove his train off the rails. That’s the sort of petty irrelevancy you might find at the Democratic Underground or other frothing internet forum.

Let’s turn to the familiar.

Washington bureaucrats want to blame Congress for the Amtrak crash instead of the man in the cab going 107 mph. Consider the paper of record in Philadelphia and the breathless headline—Official: Train-control system could have prevented crash [!!!!]. The story quotes NTSB member Robert Sumwalt as saying the crash could have been prevented if only Congress had spent hundreds of millions of dollars.

Sumwalt wants what is called “positive train control.” Think of it as an idiot override. If the engineer has a train roaring along at 107 mph but the speed limit is only 80, positive train control would slow the train. The system would cost you, the taxpayer, hundreds of millions of dollars to install.

Welcome to America 2015. Washington bureaucrats think the solution to bad decisions by 32 year old engineers is to stupid-proof Amtrak by installing robotic speed overrides for hundreds of millions of dollars.

Here’s a better idea: put people in charge of trains who take seriously the responsibility they have been given.  Hire engineers who have earned their keep driving Christmas trains at a shopping mall, moved onto various other smaller and slower trains, and have shown the capacity to safeguard the lives of hundreds of passengers. “Positive Train Control” can already be found in the cab of every Amtrak locomotive. Federal dollars cannot compensate for human stupidity.