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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 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

“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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