Crumbling railways put passengers at risk

Investigators and first responders work near the wreckage of Amtrak Northeast Regional Train 188, from Washington to New York, that derailed yesterday May 13, 2015 in north Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
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Investigators and first responders work near the wreckage of Amtrak Northeast Regional Train 188, from Washington to New York, that derailed yesterday May 13, 2015 in north Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Human error wasn't the only possible cause of Tuesday's deadly Amtrak crash.

After decades of underinvestment, U.S. passenger rail systems are operating on an outmoded infrastructure that has been starved of the capital needed to maintain it properly.

"It's not just a matter of the human mistake in this case," said Robert Puentes, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program. "We're not treating the system with the same kind of attention that we give to the auto sector, for example, where we have all kinds of safety measures."

The Amtrak crash, which killed eight people and injured more than 200, happened on a tight curve in Philadelphia where speeds were restricted to 50 miles per hour to prevent derailment. National Transportation Safety Board investigators have determined the train was traveling at more than 100 mph, though it has not concluded that speed alone was the cause.

The train might not have crashed if the stretch of rail had a speed control system Congress has mandated by the end of this year, NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said Wednesday.

That system, known as positive train control, is a series of devices that stop or slow trains to avoid accidents. Mandated by Congress in 2008, the system is required for all tracks that carry passengers or hazardous materials by the end of this year.

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But a bipartisan coalition in Congress has moved to delay implementation on behalf of industry lobbyists who say the timetable is too short and the system's costs have created an unreasonable financial burden.

Two more trains slipped off the tracks Thursday. Parts of a freight train derailed in Pittsburgh on Thursday morning, leaving some cars overturned or detached from their wheels. No injuries were reported. A train crashed into a semi in South Carolina that got stuck on the tracks, also without reports of injuries.

Read More2 trains derail days after deadly Amtrak accident

Privately owned freight railroads have invested hundreds of billions of dollars to upgrade tracks and other infrastructure over the past decade, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. Between 2000 and 2011, the total came to more than $450 billion.

That compares with federal investment in Amtrak of about $30 billion over the period, according to the report. The result is a maintenance backlog of $6 billion on just the Northeast Corridor alone. The list of crumbling infrastructure includes more than 200 bridges, most dating to the turn of the 19th century, rail junctions and crossovers that are "functionally obsolete" and electric traction systems on 1930s-era components, according to a five-year financial plan published in 2013.

"Passenger railroads are not profitable, so they require subsidies and they're basically starved for capital," said Steven Ditmeyer, former Federal Railway Administration research director and a professor at Michigan State University's Railway Management Program. "There's a need for a major capital investment to bring the corridor up to snuff."

But that capital doesn't appear to be forthcoming soon. On Wednesday, the House Appropriations Committee voted to cut Amtrak funding by $252 million in fiscal 2016.

Without the money to repair track and upgrade decades-old infrastructure, federal regulators require trains to slow down.

To maintain safe speeds around tight curves or track in poor condition, the federal rail agency designates 10 classes of track, setting maximum speeds as low as 10 mph along sections in the worst condition. Despite those speed restrictions, these sections of track are the most prone to derailments, according to a CNBC analysis of federal rail accident data.

Read MoreRailroad crashes are up—and Amtrak is up even more

That data do not include an assessment of the scope of dilapidated track in the U.S. Because conditions constantly change, and track is reclassified, there is no current inventory showing the condition of the nation's rail system according to an agency spokesman. Track inspections are mandated by the agency but because there are so few federal inspectors, the inspections are handled by the companies that own sections of track. Many now use specially fitted cars that record track conditions and report back to the agency, according to Ditmeyer.

Amtrak was formed by the government in the 1970s during the Nixon administration from the remnants of some 20 railroad companies seeking to jettison their passenger service. Today, the system operates hundreds of trains a day over some 21,000 miles of track connecting hundreds of U.S. cities. Most of its 30 million passengers a year ride on relative short routes; while the heavily booked Northeast corridor routes are profitable, the system loses money on its long-haul routes.

While the U.S. subsidizes every other form of transportation, Amtrak was set up as a for-profit company.

"It's a system that was basically designed to fail," said Puentes. "The federal government set up this quasipublic entity, gave it the mandate to provide passenger service and tried to make it a profit-making organization. It's kind of limped along from year to year to year."

Without the capital to fix its aging infrastructure, Amtrak will continue to struggle to maintain safe service for its passengers.

"If we are going to have safe transportation systems in America, you have to invest in them. You have to keep up with state-of-the-art infrastructure," former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said in an interview Wednesday on CNBC's "Power Lunch" on Wednesday.