Staying on the Rails


The day after the seven cars of Amtrak’s Northeast Regional Train 188 spilled off the tracks in Philadelphia, NPR’s “Morning Edition” introduced a segment on the disaster by noting that where the train derailed, as well as such cities as Washington, D.C., and our own Baltimore, are all really just suburbs of New York.

That may indeed be true, and what the deaths of the eight people that Tuesday night demonstrated is that the Northeast Corridor that links Boston to the Big Apple to our nation’s capital is more than just a series of tracks between metropolises. It’s an artery that connects vibrant communities to each other, providing a flow of people, goods and services that strengthens them and unites them in a way that other cities in the United States do not experience.

We in the Jewish community of course mourned with the families of Philadelphia CEO Rachel Jacobs and U.S. Naval Academy midshipman Justin Zemser, the two Jewish victims whose stories you’ll read in this week’s JT. But we, as did the rest of America, mourned with the families and friends of the other six, just as we joined all those who use Amtrak in calling for answers. Few among us, in fact, have never stepped on a train on some journey between Washington and Boston, and the safety issues this accident will expose affect us all.

But the fact that any high-speed travel is inherently risky is nothing new; neither is the fact that out of all the modes of motored transportation, from automobiles to trains to airplanes, rail travel is, statistically at least, the safest.

And yet, the tragedy — and the debate surrounding it — demands something of a productive interpretation. Amtrak has pledged to invest more money in making its tracks safer, and some in Congress are speaking in terms of boosting federal infrastructure funds, not cutting them, as has been in vogue of late.

What I’ve noticed, though, is how much an accident in Philadelphia affected commuters at Penn Station in Baltimore and at Union Station in D.C., how much the halting of rail travel between the City of Brotherly Love and New York — the service was restored on Monday — affected traffic on I-95 north of Baltimore. The train, it seems, has a power felt far beyond its role of people-mover.

But the greater truth in all of this is that it shouldn’t take a tragedy to reveal the shared humanity of us all. Let’s remember that while all of our eyes were focused on events up north, murders in downtown Baltimore have been skyrocketing. Those tragedies, as our coverage of the Freddie Gray death, riots and aftermath over the past couple of weeks showed, demand our attention, as well.

Train travel has always served as a way to connect the downtown of one city to the next, but sometimes, we as passengers have focused more of our attention on the destination than on the place where we climbed aboard. The fact is, all of our inner cities are crumbling; if we want the least among us to benefit from the great promise ahead, we must address the hopelessness that exists in our own backyards.

To not do so would be to risk the entire system falling off the rails.

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