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Amtrak’s latest fatal accident, a derailment near Seattle that killed three passengers, could discourage ridership and further tarnish the service’s reputation for safety at a time when the railroad is under attack from the Trump administration, experts say.

“Amtrak is likely to take a significant hit in consumer support and enthusiasm for high-speed train lines as a result,” said Brian Tierney, a crisis expert at Brian Communications. “And, they may see an immediate decline in daily ridership due to consumers’ heightened fear.”

But despite several fatal accidents in recent years and complaints of unreliable service, Amtrak remains popular in Congress and with travelers — 31.7 million passengers took trips last year.

Criticism of the railroad focuses on government subsidies rather than infrastructure, said Michael Friedberg, executive director of the Coalition for the Northeast Corridor, which is the rail route from Washington, D.C., to Boston. 

“It was a tragedy and we have to find out why,” Friedberg said of Monday’s derailment. “I’m hoping that people do not look at it as a trend because it’s still a much safer mode of transportation than highways.”

A total of 35,092 people died in highway accidents in 2015, the most recent year available, compared with 749 in railroad accidents, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Kajal Lahiri, a distinguished professor of economics at the University of Albany, said the country relies on passenger rail service and the government must invest in it, despite the injury to its reputation from accidents.

“It’s bad. It’s always shocking, accidents like this,” Lahiri said. “But accidents do happen. More infrastructure spending is needed to upgrade our railway system.”

More about Amtrak accidents and service:

‘Crumpling and crashing and screaming’: What it was like on board Washington’s derailed Amtrak train

Investigators: Amtrak engineer distracted in fatal crash

NTSB: Amtrak’s systemic safety lapses, lack of equipment caused fatal train crash in Pa.

Amtrak riders rally to save funding, as Trump budget threatens massive cuts

Amtrak updates Northeast train seating, with some improvements in time for holidays

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating Monday’s accident in which a high-speed train on an inaugural route from Seattle to Portland went 80 mph into a 30-mph curve and derailed, sending cars plunging off a bridge onto Interstate 5 below. 

Other recent Amtrak accidents:

• April 3, 2016: A train going 99 mph near Philadelphia slammed into a backhoe on the track, killing two workmen and injuring 39 people on the train. Investigators said a series of safety lapses caused the collision.

• May 12, 2015: A train traveling 106 mph into a 50-mph curve in Philadelphia derailed, killing eight passengers and injuring hundreds. Investigators ruled the engineer lost awareness of where he was on the route.

“It suggests a pattern, and Amtrak doesn’t have any margin for mistakes left in the minds of consumers,” said Tierney, the crisis manager. “They are losing trust in the company’s ability to ensure safety along with the convenience of rail travel.”

Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson said safety is the top priority for the railroad, which is investing in improvements recommended by NTSB.

“We share a real sense of urgency in getting to the root causes of the accident” to make sure it never happens again, Anderson said. “We have to continue to improve and evolve the safety culture at Amtrak.”

Even without accidents, Amtrak’s reputation suffered routine complaints about unreliable trains or late service. But the railroad is in the midst of refurbishing 450 cars on the Northeast Corridor with new seat padding, carpeting and other amenities.

Trump proposed in his budget for the year that began Oct. 1 to reduce Amtrak subsidies for long-distance service $630 million — nearly half the $1.4 billion provided the previous year — by arguing that trains were often late and operate at a loss.

“Amtrak’s long-distance trains do not serve a vital transportation purpose and are a vestige of when train service was the only viable transcontinental transportation option,” according to his budget plan.

But as Congress debates spending, it continues to embrace the railroad. The Senate Appropriations Committee has agreed to provide $1.6 billion for Amtrak and continue all current routes. The House Appropriations Committee agreed to provide $1.4 billion for Amtrak.

Lahiri said the government must invest more in Amtrak because private funds won’t provide enough to improve train service that is superior in Europe, Japan and China.

“It needs huge government investment in that regard,” Lahiri said.  “They have no choice. You have to have rails, no matter what.”

A faction of House Republicans consistently oppose Amtrak because of the federal subsidies, Friedberg said, but the railroad enjoys broad support in Congress with 500 destinations in 46 states.

“It’s popular, but it’s also hated. There’s no in between,” Friedberg said. “I think the main point is that Republicans are getting it that this is commerce, this is GDP and not just transportation funding. If these shut down, it will make us less competitive with the world.”

Copyright 2017 USATODAY.com





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