Many lessons can be learned in the coming days from the horrific collision on the Washington, D.C. Metro commuter line today that killed at least 9 people. Lessons about training, technology, human error and equipment failure will be among them.
The Washington Metro is strictly a local line, but all of these factors come into play wherever and whenever travelers step onto a long-distance train, a ferry or a cruise ship, an airplane or a tour bus. There are early indications that the moving train that slammed into a stationary train was operating with outdated brakes and warning systems. This information must be taken as a belated wake-up call, especially in the United States, where travel infrastructure has been allowed to deteriorate to an alarming degree over a period of decades.
Simply put, the U.S. is part of the Third World when it comes to travel and transportation infrastructure. Our bridges are shaky, our highways cracked and pitted. Our rail lines are slow and substandard. Our gloomy airports are overcrowded, in disrepair and antiquated; the airline industry has been calling for several years now for a new generation of satellite-based air traffic control - tabbed Next Generation, or Nextgen, for short - to replace the U.S.'s outmoded radar-based system. All for naught. Yet, until we get badly needed upgrades, in the air, on the water and on the ground, more accidents and more deaths are certain to follow.
As an American, I am often shamed by the non-stop "greatest country in the world'' rhetoric from my fellow U.S. citizens. As a world traveler, I am amazed by just how unworldly many of my fellow Americans are. They seem to assume that because we once led the world in so many things, that we lead it still. Not so. When it comes to travel and transportation, the U.S. trails many other lands, including some developing countries, in efficiency, safety and amenities.
I recently returned to California from Malaysia, where I used the sparkling Kuala Lumpur International Airport, built early this decade. Its state of the art main passenger terminal and the dedicated rail line between the airport and downtown KL are world-class in every sense. Ditto when it comes to Korea's Incheon (Seoul) International Airport, which always scores high in approval ratings from international travelers, right up there with Hong Kong's spectacular airport and Singapore's justly celebrated international airport.
When I was a small boy, my parents admonished me to clean my plate at mealtime. "There are starving children in China.'' There are still some starving children there, thanks to the dramatically uneven development between China's prosperous coast and its impoverished interior. But in its showcase cities, China is building transportation infrastructure that matches any in the world for quality. In Shanghai last year, I rode the world's first magnetic propelled train (''the maglev'') from Shanghai Pudong International Airport to the city center; the ride couldn't have been any smoother or faster (top speed approaches 300 miles per hour). In Beijing last year, I used the vast and brand-new passenger terminal - the world's largest - at Beijing Capital International Airport. Again, the experience was awe-inspiring. America's airports haven't inspired that kind of feeling since the 1960s, at the beginning of the jet age.
These kinds of facilities don't just pop up. They get built because political leaders decide to give them priority, cut through red tape and spend the money to build them. In the Western world, where environmental safeguards and workers' rights are taken more seriously than in most places, it is not easy to build big showcase facilities, especially during a financial crisis. But simple upkeep and timely upgrades are crucial for traveler safety and comfort.
Today, as the U.S., the U.K. and other countries rebuild their economies with massive government-funded programs, political leaders must give serious thought to the job-creation and safety improvements that come from upgrading existing travel infrastructure and putting shovels in the ground for new projects. Putting things off will only make the situation worse - and cost more money later, when badly needed projects are finally built.
Now is the time to get started.