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Questions Amtrak should answer

I am frequently asked where I live, and my answer has been “on Amtrak.” The train has become my second home as I commute between Washington, D.C., and New York City. The Acela used to be a great option, but it has become prohibitively expensive during weekdays. Now I also get a “senior discount” on the Regional train, making it even cheaper.

The regional train is the train that derailed this week. It has many problems, and they need to be addressed by Amtrak with the force of Congress asking the questions. If Congress, which provides a good deal of funding for Amtrak doesn’t get the answers, then it is safe to say no one will.

First, why are there no seat belts on Amtrak trains? Why not make people who are in their seats use them? Although there is debate about seat belts and their ability to prevent injuries, this accident should be looked at with the question in mind, “Could seat belts have prevented deaths and injuries?” There are experts with differing opinions on this, and all opinions should be heard before a final decision is made.

Luggage is another huge issue that most clearly had an impact. On the Acela, a newer train, you can store luggage in overhead bins. This is not true on the regional train, where there are open luggage racks and there is precious little space for luggage in the floor storage areas, with many people-putting luggage on floor in the open spaces where, like on the overhead racks, a quick stop can make the luggage become like missiles.

Many more questions need to be answered about Amtrak. Last summer, I wrote to the Amtrak press office for clarification of the rules of staff sitting in the café car. On the particular trip that I was referring to, staff had spread out in the café car, talking loudly and not making tables available to passengers. When I confronted the staff, they said they had been working 12 hours. This brings up several questions. Why was the staff not spread out in the front and back of the train, like flight attendants are on an airplane? If staff members are spread out though out the train, if there is a problem such as a derailment, they can help people out of the train cars. The even more important question is, how many hours does each category of Amtrak employee work? Are they making them work so much that mistakes are made?

My question about the policy of employees sitting in the café car was never answered by the Amtrak press office.

How many engineers should be on a train? How are decisions made about who is in the engine car of the train, and is there ever a break for the engineer?

There has also been a ton of discussion about infrastructure and the need to update our rails. Former Gov. Ed Rendell, D-Penn., heads up a group that wants to make America more competitive by adding money to our national budget for better infrastructure. He said on Thursday after the train derailment that there are seven strategic rail bridges that need repair. One bridge in Hackensack, New Jersey, according to Gov. Rendell, will cost approximately $1 billion to bring it up to speed. The costs of the infrastructure project are staggering, and that does not include the costs of what it would take to get high-speed rail (a bullet train) on the Northeast Corridor.

Then there is the very unclear situation with “Positive Train Control.” One member of Congress said that the reason it was not used was because there were still problems with the technology. Many Democrats this week cried fowl when the Republican majority took a significant bite out of the Amtrak budget. Is Positive Train Control going to have more trouble because of the lessened budget or is it really a technology and essentially a bandwidth issue?

Finally, everyone has been focused on Amtrak, but what about the commuter lines that carry so many Americans to work every day? Do they have some of the same problems with seat belts, storage, staff and infrastructure? Does Congress need to look into these commuter lines as well as Amtrak?

These questions all need to be looked into. We need less politics and just the facts. The American people, and the families of those killed in the horrific train derailment deserve nothing less.
Media wishing to interview Ellen Ratner, please contact [email protected].