Trains Are Safer Than Cars, and America Needs to Invest in Train Travel: Andrew Breiner

The recent derailment of an Amtrak train that killed eight people and injured 200 has focused attention on what can be done to make train travel safer. But Andrew Breiner of Think Progress says, in his article “Why We Should Spend Billions More On Trains,” that train travel is already safe. He explains his argument for spending more money on Amtrak and our rail system in this report.

Andrew Breiner

Andrew Breiner

Breiner points out that, notwithstanding the crash in Philadelphia, trains are a very safe way to travel. Breiner notes that, while we give a lot of news coverage to the eight deaths in the train crash, “there are dozens of people dying every day on the highway.” Cars are a dangerous way to get around, based on their safety record.

One useful comparison is train travel in the U.S. and train travel in China, where almost a billion people travel by train each year. There was a train crash in 2011 in China that killed 38 people. While it was tragic, it represents a tiny fraction of the people who die daily in car crashes. Part of the reason that China’s train transportation is so safe is that China makes a serious financial investment in train transportation. China is investing $128 billion this year, while the U.S. government is fighting over an investment of $1.4 billion in Amtrak. Congress would like to reduce the Amtrak subsidy.

Breiner says that spending even a portion of what China spends could make dramatic changes in America’s train-riding habits, especially in rural areas where trains run infrequently and are often late. Expanded availability of train service and modern, well-maintained trains might cause more people to think of trains as an important means of transportation. The 30,000 lives lost in automobile crashes each year could be saved.

Increased train travel would also have an effect on the greenhouse gas issue. Cars are a big contributor to fuel emissions nationwide. Trains are already “on the grid,” Breiner explains. Making trains more efficient and putting more people on trains could be a big step forward in reducing emission problems, especially in cities where smog has been a long term problem.

One criticism of train travel is that it loses money and requires subsidies. Breiner counters that “making it profitable shouldn’t necessarily be a goal.” The U.S. spends about $66 million subsidizing people driving cars, but only a fraction of that on train travel. Investing that kind of money in train travel could make a big difference. For Breiner, a perfect transportation world would be one where the U.S. spends some time and attention on figuring out what Amtrak could do with some additional investment.

Andrew Breiner is the Deputy Editor for ThinkProgress' digital team. Prior to joining ThinkProgress, he worked with a progressive media-consulting firm and, before that, an international development foundation. A native of the Washington, D.C., area, Andrew graduated with a B.A. in politics and journalism from New York University in 2010. The Legal Broadcast Network is a featured network of the Sequence Media Group.