Written on 5/13
Time for another round of blame game fallacy bingo.
Today I heard that Democrats are trying to blame the recent train crash on the GOP by way of the budget fights. More cynically, they are trying to capitalize on it as part of their efforts to defeat what they see as unreasonable GOP austerity measures.
What role could budget shortfalls play in a train traveling in excess of twice the speed the turn was rated for?
One possibility is that the machines are not technically sound. Given the maturity of the technology, this would have required professional engineers and managers to have signed off on falsified technical reports, for profit, with nobody resigning in protest or blowing the whistle. An organization which can get all of its ‘engineers’ to do that is not going to fix things given all of the money in the world.
Another hypothetical is that they didn’t have the money to hire and train competent people. For example, pot smokers should not be doing critical work on trains, which requires paying extra to attract more valuable workers and to run a solid drug testing program. The problem with this argument is that management should know when key employees cannot meet safety standards, and in this case, not run the train if they can’t find the people. Which means again management is either ignorant, restricted in firing, restricted in operating or fraudulent in ways that money cannot fix.
Another idea, proposed by the good people of Twitter, is that perhaps a systems update and overhaul could have kept human issues from mattering. Firstly, engineers do sometimes think it best to have humans in the loop, because they do not trust enough the reliability of the automatics. A governor that stops the engine from going faster than the lowest maximum speed is technically easy, but would tend to make running the train worthless. I have no knowledge whether a system that would do a proper job is technically feasible or desirable for a passenger train. The Federal government is notorious for facing challenges when procuring large innovative technical systems.
If it isn’t off the shelf, public rail could easily have had a dozen attempts at such fail, for all I know. If there is a solution on the market, and the Fed’s inherent budget, management, and procurement issues have prevented adoption, I doubt a few years of appropriations have made much difference. Furthermore, fancy automatic safeguards also ultimately rely on the people behind them.
The core fallacy is that if the budget could have induced an undetected bias towards running unsafe trains in Amtrak, Amtrak can never be trusted to safely operate trains. If low appropriations caused the accident, the only way to prevent future accidents is to shut Amtrak down.