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Amtrak Train May Have Been Struck By Object Before Crash


The National Transportation Safety Board says the assistant conductor of Amtrak's Northeast regional train 188 heard their engineer said that their train had been struck by something. Eight people died in this week's derailment when the train sped through a turn. We're going to turn now to David Hughes, a veteran railroad executive. He was Amtrak's chief engineer from 2002 to 2005 and its interim president and CEO from 2005-2006. Mr. Hughes, thanks for being with us.

DAVID HUGHES: My pleasure.

SIMON: We want to avoid speculation, and there's a lot of investigation ahead, but this report that came in last night about the train perhaps being hit by an object, would this suggest to you any reason why it might've been speeding?

HUGHES: I can imagine someone being stunned for a moment by being struck by an object, especially at a high speed like that. But I don't understand that because if there was over a minute when the throttle was advanced farther than it should've been and - you know, things happen when you're an engineer. You should be used to them. So I - it doesn't really seem to me like that's a probable cause, but we'll have to wait and see.

SIMON: I don't have to tell you, Mr. Hughes, that the crash and the deaths of eight people have set off a debate - those who say the derailment says Amtrak needs more money, others who say Amtrak isn't - is wasting a lot of the money that it gets. Recognizing there are no guarantees, would greater government funding have perhaps meant this derailment wouldn't happen?

HUGHES: It might have. The thing that is important here is Amtrak doesn't have any discretionary money. Every penny they get goes into something that's really important, especially capital money like this. And so I would think that money played some part in it in that when Amtrak has to do large projects, they have to space them out in smaller parts over multiple years. And I don't know the facts in this case, but I do know that that is true with a number of large capital projects. You just can't do them quickly 'cause the funding isn't there.

SIMON: When you were in charge, Mr. Hughes, did you find it hard to get funding for Amtrak, a lot of skepticism and doubt?

HUGHES: Well, we found it extremely hard. I've been around the world looking at railroads. And when I got to Amtrak in 2002, I found circumstances that were among the worst I had ever seen for the requirements from the assets. That is for the number of trains and the speed of the trains, I'd never seen anything that frightened me more. David Gunn was CEO and a friend of mine. We would talk about conditions, and I'd go out and cut off pieces. I'd get a bag of parts, and I'd write a one-page note on what do these parts mean. And he'd go to Congress and go make the rounds and dump that bag out on congressmen and senator's desks and say look, here's why we need to do something different. And I know a lot of that has been - some of the most dire things have been fixed because they were in the works. But that's what we had to do try to explain that this was an absolute essential pot of money that we were asking for.

SIMON: And I know this is a whole other debate, but should fixing it require more money from the government, which may not be forthcoming in these times, or privatizing?

HUGHES: Well, I'm a great fan of privatization. I think it is a very effective tool for making things more efficient and work better. And it's been successful to the extent it's been done in Europe. But the thing that's different about Amtrak is it is so complicated. You have all of the interrelationships and joint facilities between all of the commuter railroads and users. There are thousands of contracts between the users, and it's difficult to imagine a private equity company stepping in with enough money to carry them through all the losses that would be incurred. Now, you can privatize with a reverse auction, where the bidder bids - you know, say well, you have to give me 200 a year or a billion a year, whatever it is in subsidies and then I will do this for you. But I just don't see anybody stepping up to the plate with that kind of money and the kind of risk that it would entail.

SIMON: David Hughes, former chief engineer and interim CEO of Amtrak, thanks so much for being with us.

HUGHES: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.