Must We Give Our ‘Full Measure of Devotion’ When We Board a Train?

Pennsylvania is a sacred state in a way that many states are not.

In 1863, thousands of Union soldiers died at Gettysburg in a battle that turned the tide of Civil War. In his remarks at Gettysburg, President Lincoln said those soldiers “gave their last full measure of devotion” to protect the idea of the American nation. They also protected the national government at Washington by weakening the Confederate Army.

In 2001, during the 9/11 attacks, another group of Americans “gave their last full measure of devotion” to protect the national capital. They crashed United Flight 93, which had been hijacked by Al-Queda, into the Pennsylvania soil near Shanksville to avoid striking the Capitol or White House in the national capital, only 20 minutes’ flight time away.

Last week, and for a third time in Pennsylvania, a group of Americans died together to “gave their last full measure of devotion.” This time, however, they died in that sacred commonwealth in the belief that the national capital and its legislators had protected them by creating a safe national passenger railroad.

But Congress had not done that. Twice protected in two centuries by mass American deaths in Pennsylvania, on Tuesday night Americans in Pennsylvania once again gave up their lives and for what? Only to protect inexplicable budget-cutting measures on Capitol Hill.

How did this kill Americans? A “Positive Train Control” system wasn’t in place to protect Amtrak riders from whatever caused an engineer to operate a locomotive at more than 100 mph going into the Frankford Junction in Philly twice as fast as the posted speed. What was the reason for the speed? My belief is the engineer was dazed from a projectile thrown into the front of the train and somehow (and mistakenly) accelerated into the curve at Frankfort Junction, and further that without Positive Train Control, there was no technology available to stop him from doing so.

Speculative? Sure. But something went wrong. And if we had forthright action by Congress, our national passenger and freight rail system would long since have safeguards in place to protect passengers who ride the rails and passers-by and townspeople in communities criscrossed by rails.

We’d have freight rail and rolling stock systems to protect us from the oil train disasters that killed dozens in Lac Megantic, Quebec, Canada — a crash that could have happened a few miles down the line in Maine, U.S.A. We be spared the oil train freight derailments all over the Midwest and East chronicled nightly (at times) by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.

And we’d have safe commuter rail tracks in the Northeast Corridor, including Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Maryland, and New York State — not to mention in California and other places.

It means a lot to me. I ride Amtrak’s Northeast Regional trains often between Boston and Bridgeport, sometimes weekly. If I had been in my normal seating location on the train in Philadelphia, I’d have been two cars back from the engine in the “Quiet Car” coach that nearly flipped all the way over on its roof. I could have died or been seriously injured amidst the tumult such a flip must’ve caused inside the coach.

Among the Americans killed in the Amtrak Northeast Regional Train 188 was a Naval Academy midshipman from Rockaway, Queens. I hope the most powerful son that neighborhood has produced — namely U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. — uses his considerable standing to press ahead again with rail safety and modernization. If no one else, that particular constituent deserves it.

Schumer has teamed for months with Connecticut’s Sen. Richard Bluementhal (D) to jointly press for these important measures anbd to reverse a tone of skepticism about the need for modern rail safety at all. Schumer and Bluementhal said in a joint statement last week: “One thing is certain and that is that this horrific accident spotlights the urgent need to improve railroad safety all across this country.

“Crashes and derailments leading to mayhem and death have become far too common, contributing to an alarming spike in railroad-related deaths this last year. We simply cannot ignore the shrieking whistles of warning telling us: It is long past time to upgrade our rail infrastructure and implement comprehensive railroad safety reform.”

Such attentiveness could have saved American lives last week. Men and women and a Navy midshipman would have arrived home safely.

Instead, again a group of Americans sacrificed a “full measure of devotion” in Pennsylvania. Whereas twice Americans died in Pennsylvania to protect the government, it’s now an outrage that in Pennsylvania last week, Americans died because their government did not protect them.

Writer, p.r. strategist, marketer. History, politics, religion, dogs. Father, sailor, traveler. New Englander, Tar Heel, Hoosier, New Yorker, and Chicagoan.

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