Their more consistent upkeep of rail systems has allowed European and Asian countries to devote a growing share of spending to state-of-the-art high-speed trains that run on dedicated rail lines fitted with sophisticated sensors and signal technology.
Even on conventional train lines, rail operators are spending heavily each year to expand the share of their networks that are covered by such continuous-monitoring systems, known as automatic train protection in Europe, or positive train control in the United States.
"These systems in general are in a more constant state of renewal," Steven Harrod, a transportation expert at the Technical University of Denmark near Copenhagen, said of the rail networks in Europe and Japan.
But, he noted, the longer spending is deferred, the more costly things get.
That may be where the United States finds itself today. "The reality is that as time goes on, any big infrastructure project gets more expensive because labor rates go up and land gets more expensive or becomes unavailable because of property development," Mr. Harrod said.
He cited the example of Boston's vast "Big Dig" highway tunnel, which cost more than $22 billion and took 16 years to complete.
In the United States, nearly seven years after Congress instructed the railroads to install an automatic speed control system by the end of 2015,most railroads are expected to miss the deadline.
By contrast, consistent spending in European countries that operate high-speed lines, including France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain, means that more than three-quarters of their tracks and close to 100 percent of their passenger rail traffic are now covered by continuous-monitoring systems.
Since 2009, the European Union has required that any new conventional rail lines be equipped with a standardized speed protection technology, known as the European Train Control System.
So far, about 3,100 miles of European railway tracks are fully equipped with the technology, while another 6,200 miles are either partly operational or contracted for installation over the coming years, according to the European Railway Agency. Combined, these represent around 11 percent of Europe's roughly 85,700 miles of railway lines.
More from The New York Times:
Couch: No longer wanting to die
Cameron to propose stricter immigration rules in Britain
Joint statement on the Asian migrant crisis
A few countries have committed to full coverage of their national networks by the end of the decade, including Denmark, the Netherlands and even Switzerland, which is not bound by European Union regulations. By 2030, the European Union aims to have the technology fully installed across its core rail network — about 42,300 miles of track.
Such a system could have helped prevent the fiery crash of a high-speed train in 2013 near Santiago de Compostela, Spain. The wreck killed 79 people when the train roared through a curve at 120 miles per hour, twice the posted speed limit, and derailed.
Like the Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia, which killed eight and injured more than 200, the accident in Spain occurred on a section of track that was fitted with a speed-alert system but had not yet been upgraded with an automatic braking system.
"We still live in the shadow of the accident in Spain," said Christopher Carr, the director of safety at the European Railway Agency, which monitors and sets train safety standards.
"It really made us think," he added, "that there are countries that show a relatively good safety performance that can nevertheless still have a major accident."
Despite its spending, Asia, too, has not been immune to accidents. A derailment in 2005 near Osaka, Japan, that killed 106 people bore similarities to the Philadelphia wreck. Investigators found that the train had been traveling too fast around a tight curve when it jumped the tracks and smashed into an apartment building.
A collision of two high-speed trains in 2011 outside the southern Chinese city of Wenzhou, a result of a signal failure, killed 40 people and injured 192, casting a lasting pall over the safety of China's high-speed rail program.
Yet it seems so far to have been an exception, as China has opened roughly 10,000 miles of high-speed lines since 2008 — more than have been built in the rest of the world put together.
"The lesson," Mr. Carr said, "is really that we can't be complacent."