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“House Republicans’ Safety Plan For Amtrak”: Videotape The Next Derailment Rather Than Prevent It

Last month, following the derailment of a train in Philadelphia that killed eight people and injured hundreds, Amtrak ordered the installation of inward-facing cameras on locomotives that serve the Northeast Corridor. And on Tuesday, the GOP-controlled House passed a transportation spending bill that provides $9 million for inward-facing cameras in all cabs to record engineers on the job. The funding was added without objection from anyone in either party.

The cameras might have bipartisan support, but what they won’t do is prevent the next train accident. They are only useful when a crash has already happened. “Inward-facing cameras are very important for determining the reason for a crash afterwards,” Tho “Bella” Dinh-Zarr, the vice chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, told a Senate committee Wednesday. And in the meantime, for all the Republican protests that money for rail safety wasn’t an issue in the May derailment, the House’s spending bill denies funding that very well could avert the next disaster.

In all, the transportation funding measure cuts Amtrak’s budget by $242 million from the last fiscal year, and gives Obama $1.3 billion less than he sought for Amtrak grants. By keeping the Federal Railroad Administration’s safety and operations account flat, the bill is “denying resources for additional safety inspectors and other improvements,” according to the administration. “The requested funding for passenger rail service would help bring Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor infrastructure and equipment into a state of good repair.”

David Price, the top Democrat on the House subcommittee that sets annual transportation funding, has also criticized the bill’s cuts: “As we learned from the Amtrak derailment last month in Philadelphia, these cuts can have clear, direct consequences for the safety of our transportation system. … [C]utting funding certainly isn’t making our transportation system safer. How many train derailments or bridge collapses will it take before the majority agrees that we must invest in our crumbling transportation infrastructure?”

Shoddy infrastructure isn’t specifically to blame for the May derailment, but shoddy infrastructure still might be the reason for the next derailment. As industry experts note, U.S. rail has one of the worst safety records in the world because of how little it spends on its rail networks.

When a reporter asked House Speaker John Boehner about Democratic protests over Amtrak funding cuts, he called it a “stupid question.”

“Listen, they started this yesterday: ‘It’s all about funding.’ Well, obviously it’s not about funding—the train was going twice the speed limit,” Boehner said.

But it is about funding.

One concrete way for the government to help improve rail safety with spending would be to provide funding for Postive Train Control—which very well could have prevented the May derailment, as the technology can automatically slow or stop a train in the event of human error. Full implementation of PTC has been delayed for a host of reasons, including the complexity of the technology and syncing it with existing infrastructure. But money has also been an issue, especially for the cash-strapped public commuter agencies that are charged with funding and implementing the system. In their statements, both Obama and Price criticized the GOP for denying federal funding to implement Positive Train Control.

And Robert Lauby, the associate administrator for safety and chief safety officer for the Federal Railroad Administration, said “cost is certainly a factor” during Wednesday’s Senate hearing. “We feel that the federal government has a role in funding this PTC improvement.”

If the funding levels in the House bill become law, that won’t happen for at least another fiscal year. But at least we’ll have the next crash on videotape.

 

By: Tim Starks, The New Republic, June 10, 2015

June 15, 2015 Posted by | Amtrak, House Republicans, Infrastructure, Transportation | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Price We Pay For Conservative Scorn Of Amtrak”: Choosing Not To Invest In Safety And Other Improvements To Our Rail Network

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.

 

By: Isaiah J. Poole, Campaign for America’s Future, May 13, 2015

May 17, 2015 Posted by | Amtrak, Infrastructure, Transportation | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“This Is On Congress’ Head”: It’s Almost Like Our Political System Is Designed To Fail Our Infrastructure

Sometimes, congressional Republicans have an odd sense of timing. Just hours after the deadly derailment of Amtrak 188, GOP lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee took up transportation spending measures, voting to slash Amtrak’s budget, while also rejecting Democratic proposals to bolster infrastructure and train safety.

As the debate unfolded yesterday, things got a little ugly. Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) argued that Congress bore some responsibility for the tragic accident by failing to make the proper investments. Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), incensed, responded, “You tied it directly to an accident and a tragedy and suggested because we hadn’t funded it that caused that accident and you have no idea what caused it – and that’s a shame.”

Soon after, Republicans on the Appropriations Committee went ahead and did exactly what they intended to do – cutting rail investment – as if the accident in Philadelphia hadn’t just happened the night before. For many conservatives, there’s no reason to connect the two – if the derailment was the result of human error, Congress and budgetary choices are irrelevant.

The truth is more complicated. The New York Times reports today on rail technology you probably heard Rachel talking about last night.

For the second time in two years, a passenger train traveling well above its speed limit has derailed, leaving a trail of death and injuries. And for the second time, existing technology that might have prevented the accident was missing.

Amtrak has installed the technology, known as positive train control, on parts of its rail network in the Northeast Corridor. But the technology, designed to automatically slow or stop a train to prevent accidents, was not available on a critical stretch of track in Philadelphia where Train No. 188 derailed on Tuesday night, killing at least seven and injuring more than 200.

Robert Sumwalt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, made things plain while talking to reporters yesterday afternoon: positive train control “is not installed for this area where the accident occurred, where the derailment occurred…. Based on what we know right now, we feel that had such a system been installed in this section of track, this accident would not have occurred.”

Among the votes House Republicans cast yesterday? Voting down a Democratic measure to invest immediately in expanded use of positive train control.

If you missed Rachel’s segment on this last night, I hope you’ll take the time to check it out.

To briefly summarize, in late 2008, Congress actually approved the Rail Safety Improvement Act, which, among other things, required technological upgrades to the nation’s rail system, including mandates on the accident-avoiding positive train control, which can automatically slow trains down remotely.

But Congress also gave the entire industry all kinds of time: the deadline to extend positive train control to all major rail lines is the end of this year: December 31st, 2015. And even this is too soon for much of the industry, which has lobbied Congress to push the deadline to 2020. From last night’s segment:

“This is not a mystery and this is also not hard…. This is something we know how to do, and we’ve done it in patches, pieces of track here and there.

“We also know we need to do it. It’s no mystery here, because what we need to do is something that we need to do concerning our nation’s infrastructure, honestly as a nation we really just can’t be bothered to get stuff like this done. It’s almost like our political system is designed to fail our infrastructure.

“I mean, the people, American people, left, right and center, want infrastructure investment…. Politicians, however, don’t like voting for it…. We are a great nation that has allowed the world-class national infrastructure that our grandparents built and our parents handed down to us to erode and suffer and starve to the point that it is decrepit and deadly.

“This is a failure of governance. This is on Congress’ head.”

For more on this, David Leonhardt noted yesterday that federal investment in infrastructure is at a generational low, while Philip Bump added rail investment struggles to find political support at least in part because people in Republican districts generally don’t take trains.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, May 14, 2015

May 15, 2015 Posted by | Congress, Infrastructure, Transportation | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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