The New York City tabloids are having a field day with the engineer of the commuter- train that derailed last Sunday in the city, killing four passengers. “EYES WIDE SHUT” declared the front page of the New York Daily News over a photo of William Rockefeller, eyes shut as he apparently lay on a stretcher. “Death-train driver nodded off,” read the subhead, based on the public remarks of the leader of Mr. Rockefeller's union, who spoke to the engineer about what happened before the crash.

If Mr. Rockefeller is culpable for the accident there will be legal consequences for him, but this tragic accident should not be written off as driver-error and forgotten about. On a far larger scale, the incident speaks to the sorry state of the U.S. rail system, for which Washington, D.C., carries major responsibility.

Five years ago, an engineer who was texting triggered a train crash that killed 25, and Congress responded by mandating that passenger and freight railroads install “positive train control,” which is essentially a computer-based system that reacts to slow a train when it speeding, by 2015. (Some automobiles have a version of this system).

The railroads have been dragging their feet on installing the system and with the deadline approaching are prodding Congress to push it to at least 2020. Their argument that they don't have the money to install the system has validity, however, as a Congress that has traditionally been receptive to the funding of air travel and the construction of highways has just as traditionally been cheap when it comes to passenger rail, which is heavily subsidized throughout Western Europe and Asia.

In a report this summer, the congressional Government Accountability Office was sympathetic to the plight of the railroads and recommended granting the extension of the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 as requested. It could hardly do otherwise. The Association of American Railroads reported that as of late 2012 less than 1 percent of locomotives had received the necessary upgrades and the GAO found that most of the nation's commuter railroads cannot make the 2015 deadline for a variety of reasons.

The report dryly noted that ” limited resources” were a source of the railroads' issues with the deadline, adding that “financial and operational risks” would arise if Congress declined to extend the deadline.

The GAO may not have seen a recommendation that federal assistance to railroads be increased as within its purview, but that is the unspoken conclusion to its report. If passenger rail was adequately funded, America could reduce its reliance on gasoline and take some of the strain off its highways. With just a little more funding, railroads could invest in positive train control, which according to the National Safety Board, may have prevented a train crash in Newton five years ago that killed one and injured 14 others after an engineer apparently fell asleep and collided with another train.

This problem goes well beyond Metro-North engineer William Rockefeller. There will be more accidents like that one until 21st- century safety measures are installed, and for that, railroads need the financial assistance of a federal government, both executive and legislative, that has shirked its duties for too long.