The discussion about rail in the United States ran unabated this week as the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) continued its investigation of the derailment of Amtrak Train #188 north of Philadelphia. NARP explained in this blog post how this has played out, noting that anytime Amtrak is in the national news, a political spectacle is sure to follow.
Once the political-media apparatus geared up in response to the derailment, there was nothing that was going to stop this particular circus from coming to town; not the tragic nature of the accident, nor the unambiguous statements by the NTSB’s lead investigator saying that decades-old Positive Train Control (PTC) technology would likely have prevented this horrible accident. The bare facts of Amtrak’s relationship to the rest of the national transportation network are no longer sufficient to transcend its role as a political Rorschach test.
A coalition of Senate Democrats from the Northeast have responded to the House Appropriations Committee’s efforts to slash Amtrak funding by calling on Congress to raise Amtrak’s funding, allowing the railroad to make critical investments to infrastructure and safety systems.
The nine Senators asked for Amtrak’s FY 2016 funding to be increased to $2.45 billion, the amount identified in President Obama’s budget request.
“Despite record levels of ridership on passenger and commuter railroads across America, federal investment in rail has fallen behind growing the backlog of improvement and safety projects,” said the Senators in a statement. “In the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, President Obama and Senate Democrats provided unprecedented funding for needed passenger rail projects. Instead of working to build on this success, Republicans in Congress have starved federal programs that help repair, rebuild and renew vital passenger rail assets. It's time to invest in America's rails, not gut them.”
Senators Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Ranking Member on the THUD subcommittee, Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) issued the call at a press conference in the U.S. Capitol Building.
“Throughout the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak has some infrastructure that is so old, it was built and put into service when Jesse James and Butch Cassidy were still alive and robbing trains,” said Schumer.
“We should not be putting Amtrak in a position of having to choose between safety, like positive train control and other technologies, and investing in fixing crumbling bridges or crumbling infrastructure,” added Casey.
Several Senators from the Northeast have responded to the tragic Amtrak crash in Philadelphia by calling on Congress to increase Amtrak’s funding by an additional $1 billion, allowing the railroad to make critical investments to infrastructure and safety systems. This proposal is a much-needed alternative to the House Appropriations Committee’s efforts to slash Amtrak funding by $262 million.
Click here to contact your Senator now to ask them to support this sensible plan for improving America's infrastructure.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle came out with their thoughts on how rail safety improvements could be handled in the aftermath of the crash. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) blasted House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in the Winnipeg Free Press, accusing him of "massive ignorance" about rail safety. He was joined by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) in scolding members of Congress and federal rail officials for delaying the installation of PTC. The also called on Congress to address Amtrak's $52 billion state of good repair backlog and the installation of PTC.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) was also busy defending the industry, announcing plans to review a proposed passenger rail bill to see if further changes were needed in the aftermath of the accident, reports NJ.com. He also expressed his disappointment that federal rail legislation has not passed. "It is unacceptable that Congress has not acted to provide needed improvements, investment, and long-term certainty for Amtrak," he said. "And I will work hard to make sure that we pass passenger rail — that it is a priority for this body."
The Hill reports on an effort by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) to get the Senate Appropriations Committee to allot nearly $560 million for a fund to improve Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. In his request, he asked the leaders of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on transportation, Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.), to honor the Obama Administration’s request for the capital fund. “The fund — which would be the first of its kind dedicated to the Northeast Corridor — would be used to address dangerous conditions along the tracks due to decades of deferred capital projects,” he said.
But on the other side of the aisle, Boehner blasted a reporter for asking about tying the accident to Amtrak funding, reports CNN. "Are you really going to ask such a stupid question?" Boehner told the reporter before she could finish her question. "Listen: You know they (Democrats) started this yesterday. It's all about funding, it's all about funding. Obviously, it's not about funding."
Boehner argued that the train's speed was the only relevant factor. “Adequate funds were there -- no money was cut from rail safety, and the House passed a bill earlier this spring to reauthorize Amtrak and authorize a lot of these programs," he said.
And House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) rejected critics who blasted the House Appropriations Committee for cutting Amtrak spending a day after the accident. “To suggest and insinuate that this tragedy could have been avoided or would have been avoided had Congress had some more spending, had Congress had a different budget, I think it’s the wrong suggestion and I think it should not be in this conversation,” he said in an interview with the Guardian.
Looking at the bigger picture, the House on May 19 passed a two-month extension of the Highway and Transportation Funding Act of 2015, reports Bloomberg. The Senate plans to vote on the measure before Congress leaves for its week-long Memorial Day recess. The vote was 387-35. The measure will give legislators time to craft a longer extension.
The short-term extension “was not our preferred path forward,” said House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), instead preferring to extend the program through at least the end of 2015. “Unfortunately, we were unable to reach an agreement on a seven-month extension, so we are left with a two-month patch,” he said.
The White House said they will not oppose the short-term extension, but called on Congress to use this time to finally pass a long-term bill that meets the needs of the country. “Unfortunately, H.R. 2353 represents yet one more short-term extension coming on top of the several short-term extensions that preceded it,” stated the Obama Administration through the Office of Budget & Management. “This continuing pattern of uncertainty has already caused several States to cancel or defer projects during the height of summer construction season and has undermined the ability of States and localities to keep Americans at work building and repairing the nation's roads, bridges, and transit systems.”
There was also a slew of stories on Amtrak spending from supporters and critics. Harold Jackson, a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote “China spends $128 billion a year on rail transportation, and Congress wants to give Amtrak barely $1 billion. Well, you get what you pay for - and what Americans are getting is a train system with bad rails, dilapidated infrastructure, and missing safety systems that might have prevented eight deaths.”
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg accused Congress of allowing the United States to fall behind the rest of the world in terms of infrastructure development, reports the Fiscal Times. Lawmakers use short-term measures to do only the “bare minimum,” he added. In in terms of budgeting and spending, “Washington has consistently given us the worst of both worlds. No reform of entitlements that fuel our debt, and precious little investment that fuels our economy,” he said in remarks before the Peter G. Peterson Foundation’s 2015 Fiscal Summit. No issue better exemplifies that lack of investment than transportation infrastructure, he said.
Bill Press, a columnist for The Hill, said that fixing Amtrak is not stupid. “The United States today spends only 2 percent of its gross domestic product on infrastructure, a 20-year low. Europe spends 5 percent; China, 9 percent; and India, 8 percent,” he wrote. “That's right. We spend less on infrastructure than India. And this is why, especially when it comes to public transit, the United States is a third-world country.
And Press turned around Boehner’s contention that a question tying the Philadelphia accident to funding cuts. “No, Mr. Speaker, you've got it backward. What's stupid is not asking questions about the adequacy of Amtrak funding. What's stupid is not funding Amtrak adequately.”
On the other side, an article in the National Journal reported that it took “just a few sorry hours” for the news of the derailment to become politicized. “On Tuesday evening, we were told of a tragedy that killed eight and wounded two hundred. By Wednesday morning, tragedy had become transgression,” wrote Charles C.W. Cooke, who accused White House press secretary Josh Earnest of blaming the Republicans for the accident. “We have seen a concerted effort by Republicans for partisan reasons to step in front of those kinds of advancements” that would have prevented crashes such as this one,” Earnest proposed.
“For my part, I am not wild about the idea of subsidizing Amtrak at all. Others, I know, want the state to underwrite a much wider network of trains, the better to discourage Americans from flying or from driving their cars. Such disagreements are reasonable and, perhaps, inevitable,” wrote Cooke. “And yet they are only instructive when indulged dispassionately. It may make us feel good to hover over rapidly cooling bodies and, searching for anything that might assuage our grief, entertain our `what ifs’ and nominate our villains. But it is certainly no grounds for the establishment of public policy.”
Media outlets also used the accident to take a closer look at Amtrak specifically and the state of passenger rail in the United States in general. NPR took a look at Amtrak data with Mona Chalabi of the fivethirtyeight.com website. The Northeast Corridor “is one of the most important passenger routes in the country. In fact, it is the most important. Every day over 2,200 trains travel along that corridor carrying with them 750,000 passengers,” she said. “Now when it comes to Amtrak specifically, Amtrak says it carried 11.6 million passengers along the Northeast corridor in the 2014 fiscal year. That was their highest ridership year yet. Ticket sales from those passengers generated $1.2 billion in revenue.
Unfortunately, NPR failed to recognize that two-thirds of the 31 million passengers Amtrak carried last year depended on a national network service. In fact, three of Amtrak’s five most heavily ridden corridors are on the West Coast. And while the passenger revenue generated by the NEC is impressive, it does not come close to meeting the capital maintenance backlog—or “below-the-rail” costs—facing the corridor. These facts belie an assumption that the NEC would be better off without the national network. In reality, the national character of the passenger rail network is an essential part of implementing a federal solution to America’s lagging passenger rail system.
While government subsidies keep Amtrak trains running, they perennially fall short of fully satisfying the rail company’s capital-investment needs—like the purchase of new locomotives and passenger cars, plus renewal of track, signals, bridges, and stations, reports Quartz. Among some 500 bridges that along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (NEC) between Washington, D.C., and Boston—each a century or more old, and requiring extensive rehabilitation—is one spanning New Jersey’s Hackensack River. It needs a $1.5 billion replacement.
The New York Times honed in on Positive Train Control, noting that nearly seven years after Congress instructed the nation’s railroads to install an automatic speed control system by the end of 2015, the crash of a speeding Amtrak train has laid bare the industry hurdles, regional rivalries and often dismal economics of rail safety.
After the derailment of an Amtrak train near Philadelphia, investigations into how it could have prevented the deadly accident are ongoing, and the U.S. would do well to look to Europe for clues, reports Politico. European railways served 426 billion passenger kilometers in 2013, compared to America’s 27.6 billion passenger-kilometers. The US ranks 11th in the world on this measure, even behind Egypt (in 9th). It claims less than one third of the passenger-kilometers of EU rail powerhouses France (88.1 billion, 5th position) and Germany (82.4 billion, 6th position).
Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzig noted that the U.S. was ranked a dismal 25th on overall infrastructure quality in a survey of international business leaders published as part of the World Economic Forum's 2012-2013 Global Competitiveness Report. The U.S. is down from fifth in 2002 and behind France, Germany, Canada, Portugal and Barbados, among many other countries. “The government's failure to take advantage of rock-bottom interest rates to finance a major infrastructure program during the recession may well go down as one of the great lost opportunities in American history,” he wrote. “Repairing and maintaining America's highways, rail lines, electrical grid and educational facilities often yield real gains in efficiency and savings, measurable in shorter commute times, faster Internet connections and a better-trained workforce.”
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette noted that the current railway system is a mishmash of 19th century, 20th century and 21st century technology. “The crash refocused attention on the slow-motion deterioration of the vital piece of infrastructure that has a seemingly endless to-do list. By one estimate, it would take $21 billion just to replace the parts of the railway still in use beyond their intended lives,” said the article.
As Illinois continues to struggle to fill a gap in next year’s budget, proposed cuts to Amtrak rail service would hurt businesses and impact students, Illinois university officials and mayors told a state Senate committee, reports Pantograph.com. "Amtrak's frequent and convenient economical service and its close proximity to campus make it an important feature for students, faculty and staff," said Larry Dietz, president of Illinois State University in Normal. And Amtrak officials warned that any service cuts would be expensive to restore, even if the state's fiscal situation improves after next year, because those routes and times would be absorbed by freight train companies.
The Palm Bay City Council passed a resolution of support for All Aboard Florida, a privately led plan to develop modern passenger rail service between Orlando and Miami along Florida’s east coast. "What this brings for us, for the entire state, is just amazing economic development. It's moving us forward,” said Councilwoman Michele Paccione. "It's just time that we have to think outside the box. You have to think for the future. There is a lot at stake, and I'm hopeful that they will keep Brevard right at the top of their list to get a station. I do believe that.”
However, the Jupiter city council has unanimously voted to oppose issuing the bonds needed to build the railroad between Orlando and Miami, saying the All Aboard Florida project presents unacceptable risks, reports the Palm Beach Post. “The AAF proposal, as it stands, provides no benefits to the town of Jupiter and only results in safety risks and costs to the community,” according to a letter from the council dated May 20 addressed to the Florida Development Finance Corporation board of directors.
All Aboard Florida plans 32 passenger trains a day between Miami and Orlando on the Florida East Coast Railway tracks, with stops in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. The Miami-to-West Palm Beach service is expected to begin in late 2016, with the Orlando leg starting in 2017.
NARP joined with the Texas Rail Advocates to rally passengers against a provision hidden in a state legislative proposal that would kill the Dallas to Houston high-speed train.
The Texas Tribune uncovered the stealthy subterfuge employed by the train’s opponents to use state regulation to kill Texas Central Railway’s efforts to use private sector funding to develop a high-speed rail line.
“Tucked in Page 682 of the budget passed by the Senate in April is Rider 48, a provision that would bar the Texas Department of Transportation from spending any state funds toward ‘subsidizing or assisting in the construction of high-speed passenger rail,’” reported the Tribune. “The budget rider is one of several efforts by some Republican lawmakers to stop Texas Central Railway’s plan to build a high-speed rail line that would travel between Dallas and Houston in less than 90 minutes, reaching speeds of 205 mph.”
The Las Vegas Sun is reporting that the Nevada State Assembly approved a bill that sets up a Nevada State High-Speed Rail Authority by a vote of 40-1 on May 20. The bill, SB457, will establish the authority as part of an effort to connect Las Vegas to Los Angeles and, eventually, California’s statewide high-speed rail system. The Sun states that the law requires the authority to select an infrastructure company by October 15 of this year to begin work on the project. Xpress West, a private company, has been working on developing a plan and securing federal regulatory approval for the line, but has stalled due to a federal loan application that was suspended by the Federal Railroad Administration due to a disagreement on Buy America provisions.
The continued growth in popularity for seasonal GO trains in Niagara bodes well for the continued push to bring the service here year round, Niagara Falls, New York, Mayor Jim Diodati told the Niagara Falls Review. According to Metrolinx, 26,749 riders took advantage of the Niagara seasonal service between Niagara Falls and Toronto during 12 weekends of service in 2014. Ridership numbers have been growing since 2012, when there was a total of 21,364 riders during 12 weekends of service and in 2013, when there were 21,406 riders. Metrolinx’s planning staff projects 30,000 riders during the 2015 seasonal service, which returns July 3-Sept. 7 and Oct 9-12, said a spokesman.