On Thursday, senators from states along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor urged the Senate Appropriations committee to approve the $2 billion funding to the rail service as part of the fiscal 2016 Transportation Spending Bill in order to increase safety regulations and equipment for the service. These pleas are partly in reaction to last week’s derailment of a Northeast Regional passenger train in Philadelphia that led to the deaths of eight people and injured 200, as stated in USA Today.
According to Robert Sumwalt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, the derailment could have been avoided entirely if accident-avoidance equipment called “positive train controls” (PTC) were in place on that section of the track. However, this type of safety equipment is expensive, and due to lack of funding it was not in place, leading the train to enter the curve at more than twice the 50 mph speed limit and derail. Senator Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania) believes that not giving Amtrak the appropriate funding means forcing them to “choose between safety options such as PTC equipment and bridge repair.”
However, the odds aren’t looking in Amtrak’s favor. Last week, a vote in the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee approved a $251 million cut for Amtrak to $1.14 billion, which was heavily criticized by Democratic senators.
“I think what we have here is a Republican roadblock toward the greater economic future,” Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), said on Thursday. “We have a Republican roadblock towards greater safety in our transportation system and we have a Republican roadblock towards a better quality of life.”
After the incident, Congress set a deadline of December 31, 2015 for all railroads to install PTC technology, but most commuter and freight trains do not have the funding or resources to meet that deadline. In the meantime, congress will soon vote on a house-approved bill that would extend the Highway Trust Fund till the end of July without any new revenue. This trust fund contributes to funding commuter trains, however advocates of a more long term extension of the fund with new revenue argue that more funding is necessary to address crumbling bridges and roads, as well as rail improvements.
While the funding fight continues, Amtrak has already put into place an emergency order issued by the Federal Railroad Administration requiring Amtrak to use existing “automatic train controls” to restrict trains to 50 mph as they approach the curve where the derailment occurred last week.