Amtrak Derailment Puts Transit Groups’ Issues Front and Center

Tuesday's deadly crash along Amtrak's Northeast Corridor spoke to an issue that associations have been emphasizing for years: Infrastructure funding for Amtrak is already anemic yet still remains a target of congressional budget cutters.

Tuesday’s deadly crash along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor spoke to an issue that associations have been emphasizing for years: Infrastructure funding for Amtrak is already anemic yet still remains a target of congressional budget cutters.

On Tuesday night, Amtrak’s problems—particularly related to funding and infrastructure—were on display in a dramatic derailment of a New York City-bound train outside of Philadelphia. At least six people were killed and more than 200 injured.

On Wednesday morning, in a previously scheduled hearing that took on unexpected urgency, the House Appropriations Committee approved a 2016 transportation spending bill that would cut Amtrak’s funding by nearly one-fifth, pushing aside an amendment that would have preserved or increased funding.

With less than a day separating the crash and the vote, the issue of rail safety and funding shot straight to the top of the national conversation. And while questions about the causes of the crash and the future of Amtrak loom large, groups such as the National Association of Railroad Passengers said the immediate priority is elsewhere.

“While NARP will continue to push ahead for a bipartisan, constructive, and meaningful debate on the appalling infrastructure investment crisis facing America, today is not the time to push or to speculate on what might have gone wrong,” Mathews said in a statement. “Today at the top of all of our minds should be the injured passengers, the families of those killed, the dedicated front-line Amtrak employees who strive every day to operate a safe trip for their customers, and the brave men and women who saved so many lives last night.”

A Challenged Industry

The crash highlighted issues that railroad-industry trade groups have closely watched for years. Last night, for example, CNN reported on the potential of positive-train-control technology to improve safety. PTC relies on antennas to help detect problems that could lead to train collisions and derailments at high speeds. The Association of American Railroads supports the use of the technology but says railroads need more time to implement it as Congress required in the Railroad Safety Improvement Act of 2008.

“[D]ue to PTC’s complexity and the enormity of the implementation task—and the fact that much of the technology PTC requires simply did not exist when the PTC mandate was passed and has had to be developed from scratch—much work remains to be done,” AAR wrote in a policy statement.

Amtrak has deep-seated problems—particularly, that government funding has lagged behind the investment that other countries make in their railroads, according to a report in National Journal. Even in areas where Amtrak is popular—like the Northeast Corridor, where Northeast Regional Train 188 crashed last night—the system has long been inadequate, raising concerns about both basic safety and limited potential.

Despite this, Amtrak has remained a common target for Republicans. (The Washington Post noted Wednesday that Amtrak is mostly unused in GOP districts.) Earlier this year, NARP and the American Public Transportation Association fought off an amendment to an Amtrak funding bill that would have discontinued all federal subsidies to the railroad. The bill passed without the amendment, ensuring that the transit system would live to see another day.

Offering Transit Help

While Amtrak picks up the pieces from the deadly crash, the American Bus Association (ABA) has pledged to help keep passengers moving during a difficult time.

The association announced that it was closely monitoring the situation in Pennsylvania and that its members would assist by offering more buses to meet demand if necessary.

“Transportation safety is the highest priority of ABA and its members,” the association said. “We offer our condolences to the passengers who were injured and to the families of the people who died in this accident.”

An eyewitness photo of Tuesday's Amtrak crash. (Patrick J. Murphy/Twitter)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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