Gotham Diary:
Pious Exhortation
4 December 2013

Kathleen Moriarty

My eyes rarely stray to the editorial page at the Times — what is one supposed to do with all that pious exhortation? — but I was immediately drawn to commentary on the other day’s Metro North derailment. This disaster seemed awful but faintly ho-hum to me until I learned that the train was barreling along at 82 mph, on track where 30 mph was the limit. That, and the queer fact that the driver bore a plutocratic name, got me interested. The editorial complained about foot-dragging in the railroad industry, which has heretofore resisted attempts to require “positive train control,” as the latest in safety mechanisms is known. Since 1969, no less.

You have to wonder why a business concern would have to be admonished on the subject of safety. No, you do! What kind of moral fail enables the managers of unsafe systems to get to sleep at night? I’m not talking about guarantees; nothing can be absolutely safe. But the automated prevention of excessive speeding is a no-brainer. Ideally, speeding trains would be brought to a stop at the nearest station — an inconvenience for travelers, yes, but a sure way of focusing attention on mechanical problems and/or human negligence before harm is done. The expense of implementing safety procedures is no argument against them, unless the cost be proved to be staggering. How demoralizing it must be, to work in a business that shrugs off such obvious responsibilities.

Metro North is not an ordinary business, It spends more on operations than it takes in in revenue — as do all modes of human transport, in one way or another. Airlines are subsidized by “free” airports and a federal traffic-control system. Automobile drivers do not have to pay to use most roadways. Railroads are cursed by having been set up as moneymaking companies, back in the Nineteenth Century. Freight haulers still run in the black — witness Warren Buffett’s investment in Burlington Northern. Passenger trains used to make money, just as ocean liners did, by carrying the mail. But history does not point the way here. It tells us only that American railroads were altogether ramshackle at inception, a characteristic that evidently still clings. My own bright idea would be to replace American bosses with French and German ones, and to mandate a European stint for every manager of operations. The devastation of World War II provided Europeans with the opportunity to rethink their rail systems after 1945. We could use a similar reset.

That Metro North is operated by the State of New York emphasizes the drawbacks of governmental regulation. David Brooks wrote about this yesterday, in the broader context of national affairs.

It is just too balky an instrument. As we’re seeing even with the Obamacare implementation, government is good at check-writing, like Social Security, but it is not nimble in the face of complexity. It doesn’t adapt to failure well. There’s a lot of passive-aggressive behavior. In any federal action, one administrator will think one thing; another administrator will misunderstand and do something else; a political operative will have a different agenda; a disgruntled fourth party will leak and sabotage. You can’t fire anybody or close anything down. It’s hard to use economic incentives to get people moving in one direction. Governing is the noble but hard job of trying to get anything done under a permanent condition of Murphy’s Law.

We don’t really know how to set up regulatory schemes, because we still expect that the people who run them will be enlightened and reasonable. As they might be, I think, more often, anyway, more consistently, perhaps, if we shared a strong sense of civic commitment, which it’s quite obvious we don’t. Just to be clear about it, civic commitment is the opposite of patriotism, that worst of self-inflating vices.

“Civic commitment” — talk about pious exhortaton! What makes the notion interesting to me is my belief that it’s an undiscovered country. We imagine that there used to be a better time in American life, one characterized by vibrant public spirit, but that is a mirage; what we’re really seeing is the boosterish optimism that intoxicated our forebears for several generations after the Civil War. We don’t, in fact, know what civic commitment would look or feel like. We never have.

We don’t know a lot of things, and we have four dead passengers to prove it.