THE CSX AND Norfolk Southern trains that snarl traffic in Columbia don’t usually kill people; they just annoy us and steal our time. But they’re able to be such a disruptive force in our community for the same reason that human error at the CSX switchyard in Cayce resulted in a train derailment that killed two and injured more than 100 early Sunday morning: because our lawmakers aren’t willing to seriously consider common-sense laws that special interests oppose.
Regardless of any other contributing factors, the fact is that the Amtrak passenger train would not have plowed into that parked freight train if CSX and other train companies had installed a system that prevents two trains from traveling on the same track at the same time 45 years ago. Or 20 years ago. Or three years ago, as the long-delayed federal requirement initially mandated.
As Columbia resident Robert Sumwalt reminded us on Sunday, the National Transportation Safety Board, which he chairs, has called for positive train control since 1970. But like so many of the Safety Board’s recommendations, it was ignored. And ignored. And ignored. The Congress finally mandated the system in 2008, and set a 2015 deadline. Then it delayed the deadline to the end of this year. Three commuter rail systems and three freight railroads won’t even meet the 2018 deadline, among them CSX and Norfolk Southern.
It’s a good bet that the Congress will push the deadline back again, because that’s what railroad companies want. And members of Congress listen to railroad companies because they donate to lawmakers’ campaigns and, perhaps more importantly, maintain a stable of lobbyists to persuade members of Congress, through logic and cajoling and wining and dining.
Trains routinely break an S.C. law that limits how long they can block intersections because the penalty — $5 to $20 per violation — isn’t high enough to encourage compliance. The Legislature won’t increase the penalty because the railroad companies don’t want it to. And legislators listen to the railroads because they donate to lawmakers’ campaigns and have lobbyists on call to persuade legislators, through logic and cajoling. (Wining and dining is mostly illegal in South Carolina.)
Video: Trains in Columbia
It’s a pattern we see repeated in industry after industry, in the Congress and here in South Carolina. Until a crisis occurs. Then, maybe, that pattern gets disrupted.
We might be seeing such a disruption in the case of SCANA, which like other power companies has always had its way with the Legislature but might not now that ratepayers are up in arms over paying $1.8 billion — with the prospect of paying many times more — to support the construction of two nuclear reactors that have been mothballed. But we don’t know for sure to what degree that will happen.
We almost certainly won’t see a change in Washington with the train safety system, because, hey, what’s a couple of deaths? Or a dozen? Or a few score?
As for the train-induced traffic snarls: Don’t hold your breath. Maybe, maybe we’d get some legislative relief if a train blockade before a USC football game made it impossible for fire trucks and ambulances to get to the scene of a massive explosion that killed dozens of people. Maybe.
It’s too simple to say lawmakers need to ignore everything special interests say and instead do whatever the public wants. Special interests often have legitimate points, and even when they don’t, they might have legitimate constitutional claims. There are times too when the only fair decision — freeing SCANA ratepayers from any additional payments for the abandoned reactors comes to mind — could have such damaging repercussions that a less fair solution might better serve the public in the long run.
It’s true that positive train control is expensive, and when the Congress orders an industry to spend money, it needs to give it some time. But we’ve given the railroad companies time. And more time. And as Mr. Sumwalt reminded us, every train wreck in decades could have been prevented by this system.
It is true that train tracks crisscrossed Columbia and other towns and cities even before there were intersections to block. That some cities and towns were birthed by the train tracks. That there’s something unfair about telling those who were here before you that they have to accommodate you. But it’s also true that we all have to adjust to change. Property owners have to obey zoning laws that didn’t even exist when their ancestors purchased their land. One or two trains coming through town a day isn’t the same as 20 or 30. Trains that stretch a half mile aren’t the same as trains that stretch two and a half miles.
The problem with listening only to special interests is that what they want is often at odds with the public good. The problem with listening only to the public is that the most extreme voices often drown out the more rational ones, demanding actions that are short-sighted, and just as damaging to the public good as what special interests are demanding.
And that’s the point: Lawmaking shouldn’t be either-or.
It shouldn’t take a crisis for our lawmakers to give the public interest at least as much consideration as special interests. And certainly when those special interests cause crises, lawmakers need to react, rather than pretending nothing happened.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.