Machines and structures fail sometimes, but the human factor isat the heart of dangers we face time after time, from global warming to traffic collisions. People make mistakes.
The human factor likely played a role in Monday’s fatal Amtrak train derailment near Olympia. There will be a long investigation, but early indications are that the rails and the train functioned as they are supposed to, which leaves questions about the people at the controls.
When something goes wrong, the fault can be with the people who operate equipment, the people who design systems, the people who decide how much to spend on a project and how fast to move, or some combination.
Big systems are full of opportunities for human error, which becomes a larger problem with large public works, on which people are often not willing to spend sufficient time and money.
Readers may remember the Thanksgiving-weekend storm that sank one span of the I-90 floating bridge in 1990. Before that, a section of the Hood Canal Bridge sank in 1979, and in 1940, the famous “Galloping Gertie,” the poorly designed Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapsed in high winds just four months after it opened. Design flaws contributed to all three failures.
Monday, three people died and dozens were injured when an Amtrak train jumped the tracks, and 12 of its 14 cars fell from an overpass onto I-5. The train was taking a new, faster route for the first time. That route allowed the train to travel around 80 mph, but the derailment happened on a section where the speed was restricted to 30 mph. The train didn’t slow to 30.
Speed might also have been involved in the tragedy in a different way: The line was opened for passenger service to meet a federal-funding agreement but before an automated safety system was operational.
Even if an investigation shows the crew erred in some way, the system should have taken into account that possibility. The way to prevent a repeat would be to recognize the ways in which human operators may need support to avoid very human mistakes, such as distraction, which may have been a factor in the derailment. Distraction is a normal part of the way our brains function.
That’s why many newer cars incorporate systems to help a driver stay on task. The safety systems alert the driver if the car is straying from its lane or getting too close to the vehicle ahead. Some systems, edging closer to self-driving technology, can even steer or brake.
It turns out there is a system for trains called positive train control that would do something similar, but, as mentioned earlier, it wasn’t operational yet for that particular rail line.
Most developed countries have those systems in place, but the U.S. rail system has long been neglected. Many other economically strong countries have high-speed rail systems with trains that travel 200 mph, and their systems are far safer.
We don’t have that. We don’t have a lot of things that we could easily have.
Many Americans are too cheap to pay for the kind of transportation system that other places take for granted, or for other public benefits that might raise their taxes without direct benefit to themselves. Shortsightedness is a human failing that Americans have more than our share of. Congress, for instance, just overhauled taxes in a way that will raise the national debt and force further cuts in government that will hurt most Americans, particularly the young ones who’ll have to deal with the long-term consequences. Cut taxes and cut spending and what you have are systems and infrastructure that can’t function the way they should, and that don’t provide the public benefit they should, whether it’s health care or transportation or any other public service outside of the military.
That is a train heading down the wrong track because too many Americans are blind to the idea of the common good. Unfortunately, technology can’t help with that human factor. Only a revived commitment to the greater good can do that.