Charlie Pierce joins a huge chorus taking the opportunity of the derailment in Philadelphia to decry our national neglect of essential infrastructure. It seems likely that this will ultimately be ascribed to operator error -- excessive speed on the curve -- like the Metro North derailment in 2013. However, there will always be human error. The technology to prevent this exists, is not very expensive, and is in fact mandated by the Railroad Safety Improvement Act of 2008. It's called positive train control, and it would have slowed down those trains even if their operators had dropped dead.
However, if you read down to the bottom of the above link, you will find:
PTC systems are eligible for funding under the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing Program; however; no railroads have approached FRA for funding of PTC projects using this program. PL110-432 has also authorized Railroad Safety Technology Grants that can be used to support PTC projects at $50 million per year from 2009 to 2013; however, the funds have not yet been appropriated.In Europe and Japan, trains routinely travel at speeds in excess of 150 mph, and are one of the safest modes of transportation. (The first high speed rail network, in Japan, started operating in 1964 and has never had a fatal accident.) They are far more fuel efficient than automobile or air travel, and of course emit less carbon. In principle, electrified high speed rail can be zero emission depending how the electricity is generated.
Now, in order to build a modern, super safe, low carbon high speed rail network that will result in enormous economic benefits into the future and help save the planet, we will have to invest money. Which means that people will have to pay taxes -- mostly rich people because yes, they're the ones who have the money. They are also the ones whose wealth depends on the publicly funded highways, schools, airports, law enforcement and other public goods they don't want to pay for. And they are willing to invest millions of dollars in order to buy politicians who will make sure they don't have to.
Update: Less than a day after the deadly Amtrak crash on the Northeast corridor between Washington and New York, lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee voted down a proposal that would have increased funding for U.S. rail infrastructure. I may vomit.