More than 50 Talgo railcars that have served the Amtrak Cascades line since 1998 will be replaced “as soon as possible,” the state announced Wednesday, a day after the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said the lightweight vehicles didn’t adequately shield passengers in the 2017 fatal Amtrak crash near DuPont.
Alon Levy has a blistering response to the NTSB recommendation that is well worth reading in full:
[T]he Talgos on their own, with a typical European locomotive, would not have derailed. Moreover, after the derailment, they stayed upright, unlike the Amtrak coaches in Philadelphia or the Metro-North ones in New York. The reason people died is that the train fell from a bridge. As far as factors that are controllable by the coach builder go, the Talgos performed well.
So why is the NTSB so dead set against them? In three words: not invented here. The Talgos were designed and built in Europe. They are designed around European ideas of crash avoidance. Trains here have buff strength requirements too (and are too heavy as a result), but they’re much laxer than those of last generation’s American regulations, because at the end of the day lighter trains are no less safe than American tanks on rails. Lighter trains, designed to brake more quickly and not to derail in the first place, underlie the superior train safety of Europe to that of the United States – and Europe is downright dangerous compared with Japan, whose ultralight trains kill passengers in crashes at maybe 1/15th the per-passenger-km rate of American ones.
Replacing all 4 Series VI train sets would cost about $100M, according to the Times piece. WSDOT doesn’t have to follow the NTSB recommendation, but it seems like they want to.
It’s fascinating that these trains are ostensibly lighter because they pre-date the 1999 FRA regulations that called for heavy trains. These regulations were blamed for, among other things, excessive wear-and-tear on the Amtrak Acela. Just last year the FRA agreed that the regulations were too onerous and announced new ones that allow for lighter trains. Obviously there’s much more to safety than just the weight of the vehicles (the NTSB was particularly concerned with the separation of the coupler), but it’s somewhat ironic that WSDOT would end up ditching the “unsafe” Series VI just to buy brand new trains that are…wait for it… lightweight like the Series VI.
Again, it would be nice to get a new set of trains for Cascades. If WSDOT is willing to pony up the cash, and if that’s what it takes to get the bypass operational once more, then so be it. But it would be wrong to put too much blame on the trains themselves.
There’s a very American tendency to think that we can just buy a thing that will “solve” safety for us: a stronger train car, a bigger SUV, an airport body scanner. And there are no shortage of vendors at the ready to sell us such things. But the real work of safety is the messy, complicated work of redesigning the way humans interact with one another, and the layers of bureaucracy around us. The kind of stuff you can’t put in an RFP.