A site of satirical musings, commentary and/or rhetorical criticism of the world at large.

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Location: Southeastern, Pennsylvania, United States

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Trouble in the Old Neighborhood

My old neighborhood, Frankford, has been in the news every day for a week. A week ago today Amtrak Train #188 derailed as it rounded the curve at a place called Frankford Junction. It was the worst train accident for the railroad in years, but the casualty count didn’t come near the death toll of an earlier wreck in the same area.

The earlier calamity happened in September 1943. The Congressional Limited was packed with service men and women eager to get to their destinations - home on leave or back to their base after leave - for the Labor Day holiday, and the Limited was known for its speed. Demand for the train was high, prompting the Pennsylvania Railroad to add more cars for the day’s run. 
The carriages were heavily used transporting service personnel and civilians during wartime. This may have been a factor when an overheated journal box cased an axle to break on one of the cars as it neared the Junction. One car was upended and slammed into the overheard gantry. The next car was wrapped around one of the gantry’s supporting pillars. The death toll ultimately reached 79 with 117 injured.

My mother lived with her family on East Wingohocking Street at the time. Aunt Vera, then a young adult working in Center City, called home to warn her mother not to let any of the other siblings (six in all) near the crash site. Her younger sister Mary - arguably the most adventuresome of the entire family - didn’t listen. She put on her roller skates and skated to the junction.

Many years later, both sisters recounted their sides of the same story. Aunt Vera asked Aunt Mary what she saw. The younger sister said she saw bodies being piled up on fire trucks. Many of the bodies were decapitated.

Apologies to anyone reading this while they are eating their breakfast…

Since the latest crash, Amtrak has already repaired the track at the junction and put a safety device in place that it was planning to install by the end of the year. The media and pundits have dwelt on the idea that the accident would not have happened if the device - which detects and warns the engineer that the train is traveling too fast - had been installed sooner. Both Amtrak and the National Transportation Safety Board have been pointing fingers at each other during the last week over who was to blame for not installing the device before the crash.

Actually both agencies are at the mercy of Congress, speaking of train wrecks. Congress mandated (and presumably approved funding) that these devices should be installed by the end of 2015. Some of the other railroads have balked at the timetable, claiming that they do not have the money to meet the deadline. The business sympathetic Congress has floated a few resolutions to extend the deadline as much as five more years!

Coincidence was strained the day after the current derailment when Congress debated Amtrak funding for the year. It was expected that the Republican majority would slash funding for the railroad. They did not disappoint anyone. A resolution was put forth from the other side of the aisle to increase funding. This motion was defeated and - no surprise here - along party lines. It might have been more prudent to postpone the hearing, debates, and voting until after the accident scene was cleared and cooler heads could have prevailed.

A postponement would have spared the Democrats from accusations from the right wing media of using the accident to score political points in the name of infrastructure improvement. The other party (guess who) would not have been perceived as a group of miserly grinches who care more about saving a billion or two billion bucks than the cost of human lives. 

But we all know what happened. A postponement did not happen, cooler heads did not prevail and things got ugly as usual.

Whether or not the ultimate cause of the crash is determined to be human or mechanical error, it should not deter us from investing more in our national crumbling infrastructure. Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell addressed his concern in a Philadelphia Inquirer column by Michael Smerconish over the weekend. He pointed out that the United States is lagging behind other countries in maintaining our roads, bridges, railroads, shipping, and so forth. Rendell used China’s high speed trains as an example of how they are now leading the world in funding their transportation system.  Rendell concluded by reminding us that we as a nation are behind countries like Malaysia in keeping up our roads and bridges.

Malaysia! WTF!

Go ahead, Congress, ignore our infrastructure while we wait for the next train wreck to happen.

(Thank you for reading. I repeat, “Malaysia. WTF!”)