(TNS) -- While the precise cause of the recent tragic derailment of Amtrak Train 188 is still being discerned, many have suggested that such a calamity was the unavoidable consequence of systemic neglect of our nation’s infrastructure.
This is partially true, but the problem is actually seeded deeper than our budget for national infrastructure improvement. It has to do with a lack of fundamental understanding of how to safely extricate ourselves from the rat’s nest of entangled responsibilities that governs the system.
Infrastructures are complex systems that are affected as much by human decisions — the placement and shape of tracks — as they are by environmental factors — the road salt corrosion of 100 years.
In my field of study, we make a living on understanding and being able to predict how structures and systems will behave under stress. In this case, it may seem obvious how the system would handle the stress of an Amtrak train traveling more than 100 mph around a curve designed to handle the force exerted by one moving 50 mph. However, to fix our nation’s deteriorating infrastructure, we need to look closer at the stresses on this system that aren’t easy to calculate or quantify.
Since 1997, Drexel University researchers have embedded themselves at various bridge agencies. By participating in day-to-day operations, they have a better understanding of the nuanced interactions among the agency’s regulators, political influencers, administrators, engineering consultants, contractors and the public. I’m convinced that this type of interaction could be part of a successful, long-term plan for improving the management of our infrastructure systems.
Understanding the interplay among the people who own, operate, build, study and regulate rail transportation might get us closer to answering the question of why this particular stretch of track did not have positive traction control. It would also help identify other areas of deficiency in infrastructure systems that have nothing to do with technology updates — areas that might be lacking proper oversight or require clarification of responsibility, for example.
What I’m suggesting isn’t a quick fix. Entanglement of ownership and oversight got us into this predicament and it’s going to take participation from both groups, along with help from professionals and experts in the field, to go about productively and sustainably fixing the situation.
First, a federal agency such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology or the National Science Foundation, working with the American Society for Civil Engineers, needs to charge a group of infrastructure experts with producing an accurate account of the weaknesses and shortcomings of our nation’s infrastructure.
Second, this group must work with rail operators, owners and regulators to develop a common terminology that all representatives can understand. Then use this vernacular to lay out all of the challenges they are facing, not just the obvious ones or the easiest ones to fix.
And finally, research teams will need to access operating infrastructures in urban regions — embedding themselves to observe the effectiveness and pitfalls that come with new regulations and technologies. These “living laboratories” will allow researchers to better guide regulatory agencies through the intersections and interdependencies that exist among the people who own, build, maintain and use infrastructure.
With this partnership of researchers, industry and government in place, it will be possible to estimate how upgrades in regulation and technology will affect both transportation companies and passengers. Data generated will be able to predict risks on the horizon and help decision-makers see the best path for addressing them.
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