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Train crash might offer one brutal ray of hope

Monday morning's derailment of the Amtrak passenger train, which left carriages dangling from a viaduct south of Taco...

Posted: Dec 20, 2017 8:54 AM
Updated: Dec 20, 2017 8:54 AM

Monday morning's derailment of the Amtrak passenger train, which left carriages dangling from a viaduct south of Tacoma, Washington, was perhaps the most visually shocking US ground-transportation disaster since the sudden collapse in 2007 of the Interstate 35 bridge in Minneapolis -- which was classified as "structurally deficient" -- that sent cars tumbling into the Mississippi River.

Though the train was traveling at a high rate of speed (80 mph in a 30-mph zone), much remains unknown about Monday's train crash, including an exact identification of its causes. But in history's gaze, it may come to resemble the Minneapolis disaster: It will likely lead to safety improvements just as the bridge collapse led to a gasoline tax in order to fund a bridge improvement program. We always take note of these disasters and -- though cause and effect aren't always obvious -- necessary reforms tend to follow eventually after the wreckage is cleared away.

The reflexive post-disaster response to improve and reform is perhaps the one hopeful note that may emerge from an otherwise horrendous crash that took the lives of at least three people and injured more than 100. A review of modern US transportation history shows that important modifications often follow a high-profile crash.

After a fiery oil train explosion near Casselton, North Dakota, in 2013, Congress and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration helped force rail companies to speed up a phaseout of the outdated DOT-111 tanker cars that were hauling crude oil at unprecedented levels.

The collision of a Metrolink commuter train with a freight train in 2008 near Chatsworth, California, is widely credited with convincing regulatory officials that a European safety system called positive train control was necessary for all passenger and hazardous materials lines in the United States. Congress set an initial deadline of 2015 for this to happen, but testing and implementation delays have pushed it back to December 31, 2018.

Amtrak reviewed its speed restrictions on tight curves after a driver lost "situational awareness" while in control of a Northeast Regional train outside Philadelphia in 2015 and approached a turn at 106 mph when he should have been going no faster than 80 mph. Amtrak also installed cameras on the engineers in all locomotives, a video version of the "black box" recorder.

TWA flight 800 exploded off Long Island on its way to Paris in 1996 when a bundle of faulty wiring created sparks that ignited the fuel tanks. It took more than a decade, but as of 2008, the Federal Aviation Administration now requires airlines to pump inert nitrogen gas into tanks to reduce the risk of combustion.

ValuJet 592 took off from Miami International Airport in 1996 carrying improperly stored hazardous cargo that caused a fire and sent the plane plunging into the Everglades. The FAA updated its regulations pertaining to hazardous cargo and fire detection and suppression for similar aircraft in response.

After 10 people died when a drowsy trucker created a chain-reaction crash on Interstate 44 in Oklahoma in 2009 -- and in response to many other questions about overworked truckers -- the National Highway Traffic Safety Commission put a 70-hour cap on the average driver's workweek.

After thousands of preventable deaths racked up from individual car crashes, Congress required auto manufacturers in 1968 to install seat belts in all designated seating positions. Through the 1980s and 1990s, most states began to require drivers and passengers to wear seat belts at all times. New Hampshire ("Live Free or Die") is now the only state where an adult driver does not have to be belted in. Researchers estimate that seat belt use among front seat passengers reduces fatalities by as much as 50%.

It is a brutal truth of the transportation business that change is often presaged with blood. As I detail in my book, the railroad industry, in particular, has a number of features based on past disasters that are taken for granted today: lighted signals, crossbars, airbrakes, control towers, even the timetables themselves that came about as a way to avoid head-on collisions. Every time an American passenger steps onto a train, they place their faith into the hands of an engineer they will never see.

As awful as the Cascades derailment was, history tells us that improvements will almost surely result.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 256827

Reported Deaths: 5638
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto17257180
Hinds16331322
Harrison13567194
Rankin10804212
Jackson10453184
Lee8864141
Madison8314164
Jones6434112
Forrest6009120
Lauderdale5902186
Lowndes5405116
Lafayette499193
Lamar488565
Washington4803124
Bolivar3997109
Oktibbeha395381
Panola372379
Pontotoc367853
Monroe3558105
Warren354898
Union345960
Marshall344066
Neshoba3396152
Pearl River3301100
Leflore3041107
Lincoln298085
Sunflower286671
Hancock274459
Tate273162
Alcorn265453
Itawamba263759
Pike263778
Scott248046
Yazoo247056
Prentiss246552
Tippah243050
Copiah242749
Coahoma241054
Simpson236467
Leake231765
Grenada219471
Covington214672
Marion213073
Adams207070
Wayne202932
Winston201666
George199839
Attala194259
Newton193444
Tishomingo189361
Chickasaw185044
Jasper172736
Holmes168767
Clay159833
Stone144721
Tallahatchie141934
Clarke139862
Calhoun136521
Smith121424
Yalobusha117834
Walthall112336
Noxubee110822
Greene110429
Montgomery109834
Carroll104821
Lawrence102917
Perry102631
Amite98426
Webster92824
Tunica87321
Claiborne86625
Jefferson Davis85326
Humphreys83124
Benton82023
Kemper77620
Quitman6968
Franklin66715
Choctaw60913
Wilkinson58725
Jefferson54919
Sharkey43117
Issaquena1596
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 426543

Reported Deaths: 6126
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson62752920
Mobile30551554
Madison27303186
Tuscaloosa20835267
Montgomery19192305
Shelby18693114
Baldwin16513183
Lee12603101
Morgan12321113
Etowah11805168
Calhoun11206200
Marshall10236107
Houston8681148
Cullman8094105
Limestone807474
Elmore7923101
DeKalb771597
Lauderdale763183
St. Clair7599120
Talladega6224108
Walker5930174
Jackson583741
Colbert535473
Blount532083
Autauga522755
Coffee446256
Dale399781
Franklin368148
Chilton337865
Russell335910
Covington330168
Escambia321342
Dallas305196
Chambers288669
Clarke283133
Tallapoosa2630107
Pike251329
Marion247350
Lawrence245247
Winston229035
Bibb217047
Geneva203335
Marengo200829
Pickens196931
Hale177442
Barbour173836
Fayette171226
Butler170758
Cherokee160930
Henry155021
Monroe147317
Randolph141535
Washington138326
Clay127045
Crenshaw120244
Cleburne118423
Lamar118419
Macon116835
Lowndes111535
Wilcox103621
Bullock99728
Perry98219
Conecuh95120
Sumter89526
Greene76223
Coosa60515
Choctaw51524
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