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“Only Fix Things After The Worst Has Happened”: The Conservative Case For Strengthening Amtrak

The Amtrak crash in Pennsylvania killed eight people and injured dozens more. It has sparked much hand-wringing in the media, though its death toll is surpassed every few hours on American highways.

Still, Republicans have not hesitated in their plan to sharply cut Amtrak subsidies, recently voting on legislation to do just that. One GOP congressman called Amtrak a “Soviet-style operation,” which presumably means he would prefer abolishing Amtrak altogether.

But Republicans, as the ostensible party of conservatism, have an obligation to consider the extant fact of Amtrak, which is a critical institution for millions of Americans. By supposed conservative principles, it is not appropriate to sacrifice the current needs of existing people in pursuit of an ideological utopia.

Michael Oakeshott famously described the conservative temperament as follows:

To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss. [On Being Conservative]

It may be the case that slashing Amtrak’s subsidies or selling it to private companies would result in an overall improvement in service at some future point. (If you care to poke around, successful national rail is operated on all sorts of ownership grounds, from mostly private in Japan to state-owned in Sweden.)

But it is inarguably true that right now millions of Americans depend on Amtrak as it currently exists. It’s a tried, factual, actually existing institution that works well enough for the more than 30 million people who choose to take it every year. Indeed, ridership is actually up 50 percent since 2000. Most of that business is done in the Northeast Corridor, where the population is concentrated enough for true high-speed rail to be a reasonable proposition (someday).

However, it’s also an institution in need of help. As I’ve written before, Amtrak faces a slow-motion emergency regarding its two tunnels under the Hudson River connecting New York City to New Jersey. They’re over a century old, and due to flooding during Hurricane Sandy, will need a total overhaul at some point in the next several years.

Back in 2009, there was a capacity expansion planned that would have alleviated the pressure. That’s out of the question now, thanks to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who bogarted some of the money so he wouldn’t have to raise the gas tax.

A new tunnel under the Hudson is by far the most important potential piece of infrastructure in the nation. Four hundred thousand commuters go through the existing tunnels every weekday. If one were to shut down (or, God forbid, collapse), the total throughput would be cut by something like 75 percent, because the remaining tunnel would have to go both ways. A great many of those people simply would not be able to get to their jobs during rush hour.

Any looming disaster like this presents a choice. A crisis might be the opportune time for reform. But it is simply preposterous to imagine that a new tunnel could be built without substantial federal support. With a likely cost of $7-10 billion, it’s probably too expensive for private corporations to even finance in the first place. (Though it was a private train company that built the original tunnels, there are none remotely that big anymore.)

So my question for all the supposed conservatives out there champing at the bit to abolish Amtrak: What say you to the 400,000 daily New Jersey commuters, or the 30 million Amtrak customers generally? On Oakeshottian grounds, I’d say that conservatives are obligated to make some accommodation of those people, regardless of their ideology about markets.

It doesn’t seem very conservative, much less responsible, to simply procrastinate and only fix things after the worst has happened — which is what’s going to happen.

 

By: Ryan Cooper, The Week, May 18, 2015

May 19, 2015 Posted by | Amtrak, Conservatives, Infrastructure | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“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

“The Next Amtrak Catastrophe”: This Is Still An Infrastructure Story

Maybe five or six years ago, I was reading a magazine article about The Beatles’ first trip to America in 1964, a topic on which I am something of an expert. As some of you will know, they did Ed Sullivan’s show and then took a train from New York to Washington DC, where they performed their first live U.S. concert (with a young Al Gore in attendance, fwiw).

I was reading along learning nothing new because I know all there is to know about all that until I came across a line that just staggered me. It wasn’t anything about the group; rather, it was a reference to their “two hour and 15 minute train trip.” Their what?! That trip today, as you know, is at best two hours and 40 minutes, but that is only for the “high-speed” Acela, and in truth that’s only theoretical. It’s usually more like two hours and 55 minutes. That is, if it gets there, as we might add after Tuesday night’s tragedy.

It seemed totally beyond belief that the train ride from New York to Washington could have been faster in 1964 than it was the year I was reading this article. But it was true: I was so floored by this that I called Amtrak and some rail experts I know to check, and it checked out. The reason: aging sections of track that trains have to slow down for.

Technology is supposed to go forward, not backward, especially here in the US of A. In the years since, American go-getters of various stripes have invented computers and smart phones and have seen to it that pizzas reach our doorstep in half an hour and perfected the chips that taste like melted cheese. But somehow, our trains, running in our nation’s most commercially important and rail-dependent corridor, are slower.

As I’m writing these words, we don’t yet know the reason for the Tuesday night derailment in North Philly. The preliminary informed conjecture points toward speed. It’s an area of the Northeast Corridor route that’s rated at 50 mph. If you know the route, you know why—it’s urban (just two or three miles north of the Philadelphia Zoo, which you can see out to the right on northbound trains), and it’s curvy. It seems the train was going well in excess of that speed.

So, speed, you say; well that’s probably just human error, so at least I won’t have to listen to the liberals bellyache about infrastructure. Sorry to disappoint, but this is still an infrastructure story. Here’s why.

There’s this thing in the train game called PTC—Positive Train Control. Basically, it would allow for a modernized version of what happened back in the original The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three, when an override switch stopped that Number 6 barreling toward doom in lower Manhattan. It would break track into sections, establish safe speeds for each, and use broadband connectivity in a way that would permit a train’s computers to override the conductor if the train is exceeding the safe speed and slam on the brakes.

Amtrak is installing PTC on the Northeast Corridor, and in fairness to Congress, it has mandated that Amtrak do so and provided funding to do it, although not as quickly as Amtrak has requested. Right now PTC is installed only on three short-ish sections of the Northeast Corridor—for example, from Perryville, Maryland to Wilmington. If this incident had happened there, the derailment presumably would not have happened.

Congress is constantly shorting Amtrak, and especially the Northeast Corridor, even though the Northeast Corridor makes all the money ($500 million a year, roughly). See, it works like this. It’s the same old story of the red states—you know, where they hate government—getting largesse from the blue states.

There are three categories of Amtrak routes. The first is the Northeast Corridor routes, which bring in all the dough. The second are certain intrastate routes—Albany to Buffalo, say, or Harrisburg to Pittsburgh; for these, the states have to make up any operating deficits, so by law these have to break even. Third are the long-haul interstate routes out West. These are huge money losers, and a lot of the routes should just be cut, probably, but the Republicans running Congress won’t allow that, even as they keep wanting to slash Amtrak funding overall. Rather incredibly, the House Appropriations committee stood firm on approving a $260 million cut (nearly 20 percent) to Amtrak from the previous year on Wednesday—literally the day after the tragedy, strictly along party lines. Amtrak asked for about $2 billion for next year. It may end up getting as little as $1.14 billion.

So down the road, here’s what’s going to happen. Right now, there are two tunnels under the Hudson River that carry all the passenger train traffic back and forth between New York and New Jersey. They’re a hundred years old. During Hurricane Sandy, they were flooded with salt water, which experts say sped up their deterioration. They might have to be taken out of service in seven to 10 years.

They will be taken out of service one at a time of course. But imagine what a reduction from two tunnels to one would do to service. The delays would be unbearable. Think about when one lane is closed on a two-lane highway. It doesn’t merely double your travel time during peak hours. It can triple it. So imagine boarding a train at Penn Station at 6 pm, moving 50 feet, and sitting there for 40 minutes before the tunnel is clear.

Two new tunnels are needed, and given the time that’s involved in design and environmental review and so on, seven years is just around the corner. The cost is $7 billion. That’s not chump change, but it’s a fraction of the cost of Marco Rubio’s aggressively stupid tax cuts. And even if Hillary Clinton and not Rubio is the president, two new tunnels are still going to be awfully hard to come by, although by God that all-important route across northern Montana is going to stay open—and with we Northeasterners paying for it.

 

By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, May 14, 2015

May 16, 2015 Posted by | Amtrak, Congress, Infrastructure | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Stressed To The Breaking-Point”: House Republicans Aim To Cut Amtrak Funding The Day After Philadelphia Derailment

A New York–bound Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia last night, leaving at least six passengers dead and more than 200 injured. Department of Transportation and National Transportation Safety Board officials are investigating the reason for the accident, which is sure to be a flashpoint in an ongoing battle to upgrade the nation’s infrastructure.

The debate resumes today: The House Appropriations committee already had plans to mark up a bill on Wednesday that would, among other things, cut funding to Amtrak from $1.4 billion to $1.14 billion. (Britain, for the record, spends $8 billion annually on its rail network.) Not all Republicans are on board with the cuts. Pennsylvania Rep. Ryan Costello, who sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, on Wednesday promised he’s “not in that camp” and “if that bill shows a reduction when it hits the floor, myself and others, I think you’re going to see amendments to make sure that there is stable funding on the northeast corridor.”

President Richard Nixon created Amtrak in 1970 to boost passenger rail service, but he made it a for-profit corporation. That’s the cause of many its political troubles today. Amtrak has never been able to turn a profit, and Republicans—who favor a fully privatized rail system—are loath to spend taxpayer dollars on a money-losing operations. They have repeatedly threatened to slash federal funding for Amtrak, which has struggled to make do with what Congress gives it. In an annual report to Congress from February, Amtrak President Joseph Boardman described “critical infrastructure stressed to the breaking-point” that result in “frequent service meltdowns”: “Efforts by Amtrak, the freight railroad industry, and state and local governments to address these problems are thwarted by the lack of adequate and reliable Federal funding to match state and local investments in rail, and to attract private investment capital and facilitate public-private partnerships.”

And yet, rail safety has improved in the last decade. The Huffington Post notes that accidents in 2014 were down 42 percent since 2006. Meanwhile, Amtrak ridership on the Northeast corridor from Boston to Washington, D.C., hit an all-time high in 2014. Amtrak accounts for over three-fourths of air and rail travel between Washington and New York, and two congressman happened to be on the same train last night: Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, who got off shortly before the derailment, and former Congressman Patrick Murphy, who was on it. Boardman says even the popular Northeast corridor is starved  “of the vital capital necessary to maintain and expand upon that success.”

2013 report from the American Society of Civil Engineers gives the state of U.S. rail infrastructure a C+, slightly higher than the infrastructure grade for the nation as a whole (D+). By 2040, Amtrak expects traffic in the congested Northeast corridor to quadruple today’s ridership. “To meet future demand in the Northeast Corridor for both Amtrak and the eight commuter railroads that use the corridor, estimated investments are about $10 billion over the next 15 years to achieve a state of good repair and to increase train capacity by 40%,” ASCE writes. “Maintaining adequate track capacity to address expanding passenger and freight needs is among the largest challenges in creating a competitive passenger railroad network.”

Republicans don’t view passenger rail as energy-efficient travel that could only exist with public funds, but a sign of government mismanagement. Mitt Romney, while campaigning in 2012, said, “The subsidy for Amtrak, I would eliminate that.” But passenger rail, particularly the dream of bullet trains nationwide, is exactly the kind of project that necessitates government assistance—just like the transcontinental railroad did. Conservatives may liken it to a boondoggle, but California is constructing the nation’s first bullet train, at an estimated cost of $68 billion, with federal subsidies making up $3.3 billion of the secured funding. Amtrak puts estimates of the amount needed for an East Coast high-speed rail route at upwards of $110 billion. The private sector won’t take the risk on such a high startup cost. Yet, the House appropriations bill is clear: Not only does Amtrak receive less money, but “no funding is provided for high-speed rail.”

In April, the National Journal cited conservative funding battles as a main reason why America struggles to keep its rail functional and lags so far behind Western Europe and East Asia, which have faster, more efficient trains. Tea Party Republicans are responsible for shuttering the 2009 stimulus’ $8 billion in funds to connect 80 percent of the country to high-speed trains—the bulk of which would have gone to California, Florida, Wisconsin, and Ohio. But when Republican governors Rick Scott, Scott Walker, and John Kasich swept into office in three of the four states, they rejected the hundreds  of millions of dollars in federal money. The funds were redirected to other transportation upgrades. But Walker later changed his mind, deciding that his state could use $150 million for Amtrak upgrades after all.

 

By: Rebecca Leber, The New Republic, May 13, 2015

May 14, 2015 Posted by | Amtrak, Congress, Infrastructure | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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