“A tree is best measured when it is down,” the poet Carl Sandburg once observed, “and so it is with people.” The recent death of Harry Belafonte at the age of 96 has prompted many assessments of what this pioneering singer-actor-activist accomplished in a long and fruitful life.
Belafonte’s career as a ground-breaking entertainer brought him substantial wealth and fame; according to Playbill magazine, “By 1959, he was the highest paid Black entertainer in the industry, appearing in raucously successful engagements in Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles.” He scored on Broadway, winning a 1954 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical – John Murray Anderson's Almanac. Belafonte was the first Black person to win the prestigious award. A 1960 television special, “Tonight with Belafonte,” brought him an Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series, making him the first Black person to win that award. He found equal success in the recording studio, bringing Calypso music to the masses via such hits as “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.”
Harry Belafonte - Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) (Live)www.youtube.com
Belafonte’s blockbuster stardom is all the more remarkable for happening in a world plagued by virulent systemic racism. Though he never stopped performing, by the early 1960s he’d shifted his energies to the nascent Civil Right movement. He was a friend and adviser to the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as the New York Times stated, Belafonte “put up much of the seed money to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the principal fund-raisers for that organization and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that “he helped launch one of Mississippi’s first voter registration drives and provided funding for the Freedom Riders. His activism extended beyond the U.S. as he fought against apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba, campaigned for Mandela’s release from prison, and advocated for famine relief in Africa.” And in 1987, he received an appointment to UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador.
Over a career spanning more than seventy years, Belafonte brought joy to millions of people. He also did something that is, perhaps, even greater: he fostered the hope that a better world for all could be created. And, by his example, demonstrated how we might go about bringing that world into existence.
Transportation Update: Is Train Travel Safe in the US?
This may surprise you, but train wrecks are actually more common than many people realize.
In late January, an Amtrak train ferrying a large group of Republican lawmakers, staff, and family - including House Speaker Paul Ryan - from Washington to White Sulphur Springs collided with a garbage truck in Crozet, Virginia. The train was traveling at roughly 60 mph when the engineer pulled the emergency brake, but it was too late. The driver was ejected from the truck and killed. The crash came on the heels of deadly Amtrak crashes in North Carolina, Washington, and South Carolina. In 2017, there were more than 2,100 crashes at public and private U.S. railroad crossings, killing 274 and injuring 807.
Train wrecks tend to get a lot of media attention, in part because the images are terrifying. The December pictures of a train falling off the tracks and onto Interstate 5 fifty miles south of Seattle are the stuff of nightmares. Three people were killed, more than 80 were injured, and the damage topped $40-million. The photos of the carnage will live on in infamy. Would-be passengers may be asking themselves, is train travel safe?
In a word, yes.
"The Federal Railroad Association safety statics show that train travel remains safe," says Allan M. Zarembski, Professor of Practice and Director of University of Delaware's Railroad Engineering and Safety Program. "The ten-year trends remains down, and the number of fatalities remains very low for both Amtrak and commuter railroads."
The numbers don't lie. The last year there were more than 300 fatalities was in 2007 and two decades ago the number of collisions was nearly double. Dr. Zarembski expects the downward trend in accidents and the increases in train safety to continue. So train travel is safe, but could it be safer?
Train travel is being revamped - it's a beautiful way to see the country Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash
In another word, yes. And it soon will be.
Positive Train Control (PTC) is an advanced system to automatically stop a train and prevent certain types of accidents. Upon full implementation, PTC will avert train-to-train collisions, derailments due to excessive speeds, unauthorized entry in work zones, and train movements through misaligned track switches. PTC is scheduled to be fully implemented in all Class 1 railroads, which includes Amtrak, by the end of 2018. In the Washington crash, the train was traveling 80 mph in a 30 mph zone, which might have been overridden had PTC been in effect. PTC technology was installed on the track where the derailment occurred, but it was still in the testing phase. (It was originally mandated by Congress in 2008.)
"PTC will be implemented by the end of this year for 'most' passenger operations," says Dr. Zarembski. "There are some commuter lines that do not have the funding necessary for full implementation, but most are on their way."
One thing PTC doesn't prevent, however, is "improper vehicular movement through a grade crossing." Yes, our national railroad system is in need of major infrastructure upgrades, and Amtrak is always in the budgetary cross hairs--the Trump administration called for cuts of 50%--but there are fatalities that are entirely preventable. Those that are the result of drivers playing chicken with oncoming trains and pedestrians ambling too close to the tracks.
"That is where the biggest safety issues remain," says Dr. Zarembski.
In Virginia, the garbage truck was on the tracks. The crossing was equipped with crossbars and warning lights.