The Price We Pay For Conservative Scorn Of Amtrak

Isaiah J. Poole

On Tuesday night, an Amtrak train spectacularly derailed on its way through Philadelphia, killing at least seven people. On Wednesday morning, a House appropriations subcommittee voted to cut federal funding for Amtrak by about 20 percent. Those are two dots Republicans don’t want you to connect.

“Don’t use this tragedy in that way,” Rep. Mike Simpson is quoted in a Politico article as saying, after Democrats on the appropriations subcommittee for transportation and housing criticized Republicans for proposing and eventually approving the cuts.

The vote took place before news reports that the train may have been going around a curve at speeds of about 100 miles per hour when the derailment occurred. If those reports had surfaced earlier, the Republican objections to linking budget cuts to the derailment would likely have been much louder.

The objections would also have been equally out of line. Here are a couple of issues to consider.

First, there’s the site of the crash itself, which the New York Times reported is at roughly the same location as another spectacular train derailment in which 79 people died – in 1943.

The curve ultimately proved not to be the key factor in that disaster, but it does raise this question: Why is that curve there in the first place, some 72 years later? Why has there not been an effort to rebuild that curve so that trains could move through that area safely at higher speeds?

The answer to that question is easy: conservative scorn for Amtrak, which has been under sustained attack almost from the time it was created, and which has never received the levels of investment in tracks and rail cars that would be appropriate for a national passenger rail system.

Second, if reports prove true that the derailment was caused by the train operating at twice the speed it should have in that section of the track, why were there not automatic controls that would have slowed the train down and perhaps prevented the derailment? The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that “an automatic train control system designed to prevent speeding was not in place where Amtrak Train 188 crashed.”

In fact, there is a requirement that Amtrak, commuter lines and freight railroads have positive train controls in place by the end of 2015. Unfortunately, the task (and the bulk of the funding) was left to the privately run freight railroads, on whose lines Amtrak runs. Trying to implement the train control system on the cheap appears to have dramatically failed. (This article on the Eno Transportation Center website has some background.) In January, notes Gregg Levine writing for Al Jazeera, Amtrak published a newsletter in which it said it was “hopeful” that positive train control would be implemented throughout the entire Northeast Corridor by the end of the year. But in March, the acting administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, Sarah Feinberg, told Congress that the railroad industry would miss the 2015 deadline.

Meanwhile, a $17 million increase request from the Obama administration for the safety and operations budget of the Federal Railroad Administration, which includes funding for positive train control, was denied by the appropriations subcommittee. The budget was held level at $186 million.

Interestingly, the Republican committee report on the appropriation for the Department of Transportation had far more to say about the pay of workers serving food on the trains than it did about needed investments to ensure trains could operate safely.

“Yesterday’s tragedy in Philadelphia should be a wake-up call to this Committee – we must provide sufficient funding for Amtrak’s critical infrastructure projects to ensure a safer transportation system,” Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, said in a statement after the vote. “The majority’s shortsighted, draconian budget cuts stand in the way of the investments that a great country must make.”

Price is not out of line. Advocates for increasing investments in transportation infrastructure – ranging from labor unions to members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – had planned for today to be a lobbying day on Capitol Hill to call attention to the need for more federal investment in our transportation network. Now the entire nation’s attention is focused on what happens when we choose not to invest in safety and other improvements to our rail network. It’s time to ignore the people on the right who don’t want us to make the connection between a disaster and the obstruction of investments that could have prevented it.

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