Deadly train derailment in Montana reveals the ailing state of the US infrastructure


The derailment of an Amtrak passenger train in northern Montana on Saturday, killing three people and injuring at least 50, is the latest in a string of accidents and disasters caused by dilapidated, underfunded and underdeveloped infrastructure in the United States .

According to investigators, the train known as the Empire Builder was traveling under the line’s speed limit of 129 mph when eight of its ten cars came off the tracks at a switch with a siding just outside the town of Joplin, Montana. Several cars overturned on their side, trapping passengers and crew who were rescued by residents hurrying to the scene with ladders. The owner of the railway, BNSF, reported that the switch was only inspected two days before the accident.

Overturned cars from an Amtrak train that derailed near Joplin, Montana, killed three people and injured others on September 25, 2021. (AP Photo / Ted S. Warren)

While Amtrak is subsidized by state and federal funds, the trains mainly run on rails privately owned by rail freight companies such as BNSF, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, which are used for both passenger and freight transport. BNSF reported net income of $ 5.48 billion in 2019, while the parent company reported net income of $ 42.5 billion in 2020.

Passenger and freight traffic is now blocked on a major transit artery between the Midwest and the West Coast while investigations and cleanups continue. The Empire Builder takes passengers 2,200 miles from Chicago, Illinois, via St. Paul, Minnesota to Seattle, Washington or Portland, Oregon. On average, more than 400,000 passengers take the regional train every year.

The three victims were identified as husband and wife, Don and Margie Varnadoe, of Glynn County, Georgia, celebrating their 50th anniversary, and Zach Schneider, 28-year-old software engineer, of Fairview Heights, Illinois.

While the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation into the cause of the crash is still in its infancy and a preliminary report is expected in 30 days, there are already indications of what may have gone wrong.

Former NTSB rail accident investigator Russ Quimby told the Associated Press that the derailment appeared to be the result of a heat-related line failure. “This has all the characteristics of a track buckle,” explained Quimby. “Sometimes a locomotive that is heavier comes through“ a kinked track, but the following wagons don’t. You saw that in this accident, ”he remarked.

Temperatures in Joplin exceeded 84 degrees Fahrenheit on Saturday. That summer, Montana brought record-breaking, sustained heat as part of a broader heat wave that hit the northwestern United States and Canada. The extreme heat caused by human-made climate change resulted in hundreds of deaths and strained infrastructure across the region.

Railway safety expert David Clarke, director of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Tennessee, told the AP that a fault in the track or switch that would not have been detected during a routine inspection may have caused the crash. “Did the switch play a role? It could be that the front of the train was pushing the switch and he started getting fishtails and overturned the back of the train, ”said Clarke.

The Montana derailment is only the most recent Amtrak fatal accident in the past decade. Eight people died and more than 200 were injured when the Amtrak Northeast Regional ran off the rails in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; three were killed and 57 injured when the Amtrak Cascades derailed south of Tacoma, Washington; and two crew members were killed in 2018 when the Amtrak Silver Star collided with a standing CSX freight train after being misdirected onto a siding.

Decades of cuts and underinvestment have crippled the United States’ rail system. Rail infrastructure and workers have come under increasing pressure as rail companies have reduced the number of crew members on the freight trains, sometimes to just one, while increasing their length, with trains up to five kilometers long to cope with the congestion of the Ports along the route to tackle west coast.

Bullet trains, common in Asia and Europe, are all but non-existent in the US. Only a single train can reach speeds of up to 250 miles per hour, the Acela, which connects Boston with Washington DC. However, the ability of the train to travel at top speeds is limited by the fact that it runs on routes that are also used by freight and regional trains. Plans for a high-speed rail line in California were hampered by repeated delays and cost overruns. The first section of the line is slated to go into operation in 2029, almost two decades after the project was approved by voters.

As the rich amass ever greater fortunes and allow billionaires to fly into space in private rocket ships, the public infrastructure that tens of millions rely on every day is crumbling, with deadly effects. Pockmarked highways, train accidents, bridge failures, break-ins, massive power outages and large floods are just some of the consequences of decades of systematic deregulation and defunding to enrich the financial oligarchy.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) review of the country’s infrastructure in 2021 gave the United States a C-. ASCE found that the passenger rail system has a repair backlog of $ 45.2 billion, with Amtrak spending only $ 713 million on repair projects between 2017 and 2019. Meanwhile, the country’s roads received a poor D rating, with 43 percent of public roads in poor or mediocre condition and $ 786 billion behind in road and bridge repairs or improvement.

Last week the House of Representatives passed a budget of $ 768 billion for the Pentagon for 2022, $ 15 billion more than President Biden requested, including $ 24.7 billion for nuclear weapon modernization. Just a year of funds spent on war and preparations for military attacks abroad could fill the road repair backlog.

According to the Costs of War Project, the so-called “global war on terror” launched by US imperialism after the 11th. ASCE estimates that less than a third of the money spent on wars, $ 2.6 trillion, is needed to fix all infrastructure problems in the US.

Despite the urgent need for a major infrastructure overhaul, the Democrat-controlled Congress is haggling over a $ 1 trillion infrastructure bill that will barely scratch the surface, with billions of dollars slated to pour into banks and private companies . The main purpose of the measures discussed is to prepare for war with China, a prospect that puts tens of millions of lives at risk.

The deadliest result of the subordination of everything to Wall Street interests has been the collapse of the country’s public health and health systems under the pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic. The bipartisan “herd immunity” and back to work, back to school policies of the ruling elite has resulted in the deaths of at least 700,000 Americans, more than one in 500 people.

With the miserable state of infrastructure, the ongoing consequences of the pandemic and the ongoing rise in massive social inequality, the ruling class is proving the bankruptcy of capitalism, the social and economic order on which it is based.

The solution to the social crisis in the United States, as in the world, is to transform society under the democratic control of the working class to function on the basis of human needs rather than private profit. Trillions are to be expropriated from the rich and big banks, while the largest corporations are turned into worker-run public utilities on the basis of a socialist program.


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