If you were to look at the recent New York City F-train subway derailment as a stand-alone incident, I wouldn’t hold it against you. Especially since news has just come out that it wasn’t due to the age of the tracks, but a faulty rail supplied by a manufacturer. But let’s examine this for a second. The MTA was quick to point out that it wasn’t the age of the tracks that caused the issue, but their manufacture. So the MTA is saying it’s not that the tracks were old and poorly maintained, but the derailment was from something brand new and yet still defective. And this is supposed to allay our fears? Or it could be the MTA is saying that the derailment, you know, is not their fault. Well, except for the fact that the MTA was the entity who bought defective track steel in the first place and didn’t discover this until it nearly killed a train full of people. So there’s that.
I could point a finger at this derailment as evidence of something really, really, really heinously wrong with the maintenance of our transportation infrastructure in the United States, and you might say, well, the derailment was just one incident. You cannot show a trend from one event. You’re right. I can’t.
But what about this recent report that says one in ten bridges in the U.S. are in urgent need of repair? Well, someone will fix this problem, right? A team of smart, young American engineers are eager and willing to set things right with our infrastructure. Right? …Right?
Consider that every time you travel over a bridge in the U.S. you have a one in ten chance of this happening:
Oh, come on, you say. It’s not really that bad, is it? You’re exaggerating this for rhetorical effect.
You could tell me this recent gas leak in the Bronx that destroyed half a block and killed eight was nothing to worry about. And this monstrous steam pipe explosion in 2007 was just a fluke event. And this Metro North commuter train derailment that killed four this past winter does not point to any trend. You might tell yourself you have complete faith in the whip-crack smart American ingenuity to find and fix these infrastructure problems before they get worse. Anyway, you’re not an engineer, so what can you do but let the experts do their jobs?
Experts, heh, is that what you call them?
I’ll tell you sincerely, I do not at all trust a system that once gave us this masterpiece in 1910:
And now takes nine months and several station closings to give us this piece of metal vomit in 2014:
When the MTA is quick to point out, “It wasn’t us!” and punts the blame down the American supply chain, my first reaction is disgust. Think about this: After an almost fatal accident the response of an organization I and my loved ones travel on almost every day is to shift blame. Their response is not, you should note, “It’s very much our fault we sourced bad materials and we will not be using this company again, and we will be replacing all the portions of track we bought from them.” But instead they say: “We’ll investigate the supplier and recheck the portions of track we bought from them.” So, basically, they are changing nothing. You know, because if it’s not broken now, it probably will be fine in the future.
How many accidents does it take, how many deaths, for us to realize we have a problem in this country? That we have a transportation system that is aging fast, and all the smart and talented folks, the engineers and architects, who might be able to fix these pressing issues are working other, more exciting jobs. If you’re a twenty-one year-old bright young kid who has just graduated with an engineering degree from Carnegie Mellon, are you going to go work for Tesla designing the next electric car for a six figure salary, or for an under-budgeted municipality fixing century old pipe and steel for teacher’s wages? But hey, we have overseas nation building to finish and a War on Terror to fund, and don’t forget the NSA, and really, things like pipes and bridges and roads are just so 20th century. Let me go check my Facebook page, hey cute cat picture, that desert looks delicious, like, like, is this my stop yet? Where are we anyway?
May 6, 2014 at 4:46 am
All true, Matt, and very scary. I remember hearing about the problems with our nation’s infrastructure when Gore was running for president and so far nothing has been done. We’re just not thinking of these things enough. I wonder if it has to do with the fact that politics has become so campaign focused that nobody in power bothers with the nuts and bolts of keeping the nation running safely any more unless they can derive some political capital from it. If someone can figure out a way to tie bridge and tunnel safety with gay marriage or contraception, then maybe something will be done.
May 6, 2014 at 8:57 am
Lauren, I think politics plays a huge part, yes, but mostly I believe it’s that the real talent pool has shifted into high-tech jobs. I knew a lot of engineers at my college (Georgia Tech) and I can’t recall a single one who said they wanted to work in bridge and tunnel maintenance. It was all aerospace and computer engineering. There’s no glamor in it. Plus when you are dealing with municipality and government labor, by default, they go with the cheapest workforce, which often results in a talent pool far less than what you’d wish for. But really, I think it’s a collective, i.e. societal ignorance combined with a shift of talent away from civil engineering into high tech positions. No one is left to helm the old ship.