House Votes to Slash Amtrak Funding Just Hours After Horrible Crash

Just hours after seven people were killed and hundreds injured in an Amtrak derailment near Philadelphia, the U.S. House voted to cut funding for the passenger rail service.

Photo: Wikipedia

Early reports suggest the derailment was caused by excessive speed — exactly the type of crash that could be avoided with a new safety system that Amtrak is in the midst of installing on the Northeast Corridor. Watchdogs have identified a lack of funds as one obstacle to timely implementation of the system, known as Positive Train Control.

Nevertheless, the House voted this morning to approve an appropriations bill that cuts Amtrak funding by $260 million.

According to the New York Times, the train was traveling 100 mph on a stretch of track near Frankford Junction where the advised limit is 50 mph:

That area, in the Port Richmond section of the city, does not have a safety system called Positive Train Control that can, among other features, automatically reduce the speed of a train that is going too fast.

MSNBC says the House vote came after a heated debate about whether insufficient infrastructure funding was responsible for the crash.

Federal safety officials have required Amtrak to install Positive Train Control by the end of 2015. A report issued by the Amtrak Inspector General at the end of 2012 [PDF] concluded that a “significant challenge” to meeting the deadline is “ensuring that Amtrak has enough funds available to implement PTC.”

John Olivieri, national campaign director for transportation at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, called the House vote unbelievable. “The nation’s intercity rail network has seen growing ridership and Americans increasingly are looking for alternatives to driving,” he said. “They should be increasing the Amtrak budget, not cutting it.”

51 thoughts on House Votes to Slash Amtrak Funding Just Hours After Horrible Crash

  1. Yes, PTC would have avoided this type of crash but the larger issue is lack of funding to get rid of sharp curves in places like the NEC. It’s tedious to drive a train while repeatedly slowing for curve restrictions. It’s also prone to human error. Moreover, it increases travel times. It also increases wear on the equipment. Whether or not PTC is installed, it’s best to make our railroads inherently safer by reducing the number of places you need to slow down. It may not be possible to do this everywhere, but certainly you don’t want any curve restrictions of less than maybe 100 mph on a line which is 125 mph and up in most places.

  2. Wouldn’t it be more logical to cut military spending instead of things that actually mattered? We could have world class HSR even if we cut only 20% of the military budget and allocated that money to Amtrak.

  3. I for one would rather buy goods and services from railcar manufacturers and construction workers rather than weapons manufacturers and mercenaries.

  4. For what the “made-up” fake Iraq war cost us ($2 trillion by some estimates) we could have had a national HSR system which would have made Japan and China jealous. You might now be able to go from NYC to Chicago in 5 hours, or to LA in about 12 hours (far less if part of the system were maglev). The system would have mostly ended domestic air travel, plus a lot of long distance car travel. It would have drastically reduced our oil use. But of course, going on a jihad against Iraq based on made up evidence was more important.

  5. That and defense contractors and airlines spend orders of magnitude more on lobbying and campaign donations than anyone advocating rail.

  6. Also, it’s a bit of an overstatement to say that even a robust rail system here would end domestic air travel. Europe has tons of air travel in spite of its excellent railroads. But it would certainly greatly reduce it, especially for shorter trips. I long for the day that I could get from NYC to Buffalo by train in under 4 hours, let alone the 2.5 that real HSR would likely afford.

  7. On certain segments though HSR in Europe virtually eliminated air travel. We could for example eliminate most domestic flights to destinations within about 500 miles of NYC if we had state-of-the art HSR. We could radically reduce air travel out to maybe 1000 miles given that a fair segment of the population will opt for a train over a plane if it only takes a few hours more.

    A good start here would just be getting the NYC-Boston and NYC-Washington segments down to about 1.5 hours. Later on we could extend electrification and HSR to points south and west.

  8. It’s kind of shocking that it’s even legal to manually operate a train on a dedicated right-of-way without automated signalling and control. What is this, the 19th century?

  9. Amtrak (and transit) ridership is rising. Why? Because it’s what younger generations want.

    Amtrak and transit are collapsing. Why? Because Generation Greed took all the money for itself, whether for tax cuts or spending on other things with short term payoffs.

    Infrastructure disinvesment, pension underfunding, and retroactive pension increases are even better than debts, because they are off the books.

    They’ll keep taking unless this reality is confronted, and politicians of both parties fear being against the future rather than insufficient pandering to those who have stolen it.

  10. Brain dead? They are self interested people with a “job” with no work followed by a pension with no work. And virtually no one seeking to remove them.

    I ran against my local hack.

    Anyone else? Maybe they aren’t the ones who are brain dead after all. Most of those under 55 don’t even vote, not that there is usually anyone on the ballot to vote for.

  11. Amtrak is in serious trouble…I hesitate to say ‘doomed’, but maybe it is. It needs massive capital investments right at a time when it is almost certainly not going to get them. Republicans are just too united in their hatred of Amtrak and Democrats support for it is weak.

    If America couldn’t get a first-class rail system underway under the Obama administration I don’t see it happening. It certainly isn’t going to happen under President Cruz.

  12. Cutting 50% of military spending would fund pretty much everything we need in the US and slash the deficit at the same time.

    The US military budget, running arond a trillion dollars a year, is obscene. And it’s for a military which *loses every war it gets into*. Eliminating the rolling slush fund for oinking military contractors might give us a chance at having a competent military.

  13. New York has the most corrupt state legislature in the US. We’re going to see a big change there; I’m not sure how long it’s going to take, but the corruption is so massive and so debilitating that it’s making even the rich and powerful mad, so it’s going to end.

    For now, Preet Bharata is busy indicting nearly every member of the legislature.

  14. They’re starting to be afraid of being on the wrong side of history.

    They should be much, much more afraid than they are.

  15. Amtrak’s been “doomed” since it was created in 1970, with the deliberate intention of pulling the plug in the next few years. It turns out that it’s a lot harder to kill than you might think. The first almost-successful attempt to kill Amtrak was made in 1981, with slashing of routes on a fairly illogical basis which led to losing good routes while keeping weak routes; and Amtrak survived that. The second almost-successful attempt involved the appointment of an incompetent CEO known for overspending and not finishing projects — Thomas Downs — and Amtrak survived that. Following that, Amtrak’s budget was slashed to next to nothing for years on end and Amtrak survived THAT.

    I don’t think we’re going to get a first class rail system any time soon, but Amtrak has proven deeply capable of surviving.

  16. We’ve reached the point where the only possible response to a headline like this is …

    “Of course.” *Of course* the House voted to slash Amtrak’s funding hours after a disastrous crash. Why in the world would we expect anything different?

    And what’s going to be the electoral consequence of idiocy like this, or maybe more accurately deliberate sabotage like this? An even bigger Republican majority in 2017, is what.

    This country is insane.

  17. Do the morons who voted for this reduction in funding know Amtrak’s correct name? It is the National Railroad Passenger Corporation. The U.S. government owns it and yet won’t fund it. These are the same geniuses who think that the U.S. Postal Service should be self funding. If we apply this logic to our military, we’d create the world’s largest mercenary force. For all the talk about term limits, we have an opportunity to clean up the House of Representatives every two years. So why do we continue to elect such idiots? Please join me in voting against any elected official who doesn’t support Amtrak.

  18. Add in the cost of a taxi ride to/from the airport and the plane costs more. That’s not to mention the inconvenience of having to go from taxi to plane and back to taxi, or schlepping your luggage through the airport. In many cases, HSR is a one seat ride where you just walk to/from your destination at the ends of the journey (or at worst take a short trip on conveniently connecting local trains).

  19. Let me tweak that a bit, if by Generation Greed you mean my baby-boomer contingent (I am 64 and admit to an insane greed for caffeine, random knowledge, and pipe tobacco). It was a minority of my generation, and of the generations following, who took over our country and brought us to the point we are now, about two short steps from a right-wing oligarchy. Most of us don’t have anywhere near all the money. I do blame the majority of us for taking our eyes off the ball and letting it happen.

    I have children and grandchildren, and thinking about the kind of future we are leaving them has cost me more than a few hours of sleep.

  20. If I recall my high-school civics rightly, yes, it does, where it will presumably get all 54 Republican votes, and quite possibly a few Democratic votes in our one-and-a-half-party system. It will then, hopefully, be vetoed by the President. As CeeTee65 points out above, we won’t be so lucky under President Cruz, or President Walker, or President Bush III.

  21. Amtrak and USPS are not allowed to be run without congress butting in. Why doesn’t USPS offer the same services that a fedex/kinkos or ups store offers(faxes, small printing, packaging items)?

  22. I think it’s intentional to lose every war we get into. Keeping conflicts and bad regimes going around the world “justifies” our military spending. If the US military were actually allowed to win wars, it would essentially be putting itself out of business.

    On another note, the US can easily win without a conventional army at all. Lob a nuke or two at the military targets of some of our enemies. That will get them to surrender instantly thinking one of their cities will be next.

  23. I like to think a certain political party’s logic is as follows:

    -This item is using too much money, cut spending

    -This item isn’t functioning at a great level, it must be bloated from bureaucrats, cut the spending

    -This item is still not functioning at an optimal level and is losing more money now, cut spending to make it lean and profitable

    -Now its functioning even worse, just kill it and stop wasting taxpayer dollars

  24. I don’t (entirely) share Larry’s apocalyptic worldview, but the boomers do have moustache-twirling, tie-Nell-to-the-railroad-tracks capacity for greed and narcissism.

    In the 1960s they were voting for more freedom and opportunity for themselves and got it. By the 1980s, they had started taking freedom and opportunity away from the next generations. Even little things like the drinking age; they lowered it for themselves, and then raised it for their kids.

  25. It’s not really a funding issue. President Bush signed the bill to install this safety technology in 2008, but it was such a low priority for the Obama Administration—I’m a Democrat—that it still isn’t installed on the busiest part of the Amtrak system. Instead of having Ray Lahood pushing that dumb high-speed rail project and bicycles, the administration should have made this a priority.

  26. Well thank god we can blame the government and not the driver! He should be rewarded for having to operate in unsafe conditions.

  27. Yes, I know that they get micromanaged by Congress. That’s exactly what I’m saying, just with an example. USPS would be able to operate far more efficiently and wouldn’t “lose money” if they weren’t being required by Congress to fund the retirement for people who aren’t even born yet.

  28. Well, it really is a funding issue.

    Amtrak still doesn’t have enough money to implement basic safety upgrades to 100-year-old systems; Amtrak has to choose between installing PTC and repairing bridges.

  29. Republicans have gerrymandered their way into power, mostly. For the US House, Democrats got more votes than Republicans in 2014.

  30. Nuclear deterrence is still a thing; if the US launched a nuke at *anyone anywhere* Russia would automatically wipe out most of the US’s population centers. This was actually automatic during the Cold War; it was called the “dead hand”; it was made a little less automatic under Gorbachev, but I would expect that Putin has restored it.

    Nukes are useless.

  31. Not to mention this same generation started the war on drugs, arguably a bigger failure than Prohibition, after spending their youth getting high.

  32. Sad to say, I think if some of the people you mentioned were around today they would be slandered mercilessly by Fox News, to the point nobody would take them seriously. The problem with ALL democracies is they eventually reach a point where people realize they can game the system and get things they want at the expense of their neighbors. At this point democracy becomes a system for the individual good, not the common good. Sometimes if we’re lucky things will reset after a few bloody revolutions but this is by no means guaranteed.

    I also tend to think the motivating factor for people to vote in leaders who may work against their self interest but for the common good is to give their descendants a better life than they had. Usually people only do this if they’re had a difficult life with many sacrifices. Maybe that’s the problem. The last generation old enough to actually remember tangible sacrifice is in their 80s or older. They passed on a better life for their children who in turn only cared about themselves. Solve the problem of how to get a majority to care about the future as much as the present and you largely will solve the problem which all democracies eventually face. Sadly, we’ve been trying since ancient Greece but haven’t yet figured out a solution. Perhaps no longer electing people to lead is the answer.

    As for trying to put competent intelligent people in power, you’ve conveniently skipped over the problematic part, which is *how* to do so.

    I believe I made that clear. You make a short list of exceptional people in their fields as potential candidates. You immediately weed out anyone who might actually want the job. You pick a group of people from this list of brilliant, non-power hungry people, perhaps at random. Or perhaps even let a computer select them based on weighted averages of desirable traits. The people remain in office until they die or resign. As vacancies appear, you use the same method to fill them. The problem with our system these days is you only get professional politicians in office because the process is too rigged for anyone else to get in. That’s particularly true of those who might be great leaders, but couldn’t deal with the disgusting process of actually getting elected.

    In theory if most of the population was highly educated, intelligent, and selfless democracies would work great. In reality, and forgive my pessimism, but most people are self-centered morons who often can’t even run their own lives, much less pick decent leaders.

  33. It’s actually even simpler than that. A good or service is only worth having if a stupid corporation can make a profit off it.

  34. Nope. Like air travel, travelers still have to get to and from a terminal/station. Based on the emerging info on that train wreck in Philadelphia, trains are even more vulnerable to vandalism and terrorism than airplanes. Rail makes sense on the densely populated East coast but there’s no similar density in the sprawling West.

    The HSR project in California is particularly dumb, since the money to build the system has never been there, and the HSR Authority has inflated future ridership and downplayed the cost of tickets and the cost to build and operate the system if/when it’s built.

    The biggest problem that project has: Prop. 1A state voters passed in 2008 to authorize the project forbids any public subsidy to operate the system. Since every HSR system in the world is subsidizes by governments, this will be fatal to the project as the litigation against it plays out in the next few years.

  35. You can’t hijack a train, run it into a building, and kill nearly 3,000 people. Despite the speed the train was going when it wrecked, the casualties were relatively light. Also, it’s fairly easy to put measures in place to mitigate this type of incident in the future. That would include higher fences along the ROW in areas where the locals engage in rock throwing as a pastime, glass more resistant to projectiles, and last but not least, if this collision was caused by vandalism/terrorism executing the perpetrators.

    Why does every discussion of HSR devolve to what is going on in California? That has nothing to do with anything since the system hasn’t even been built. We don’t know what the ridership will be, if it will be successful, or so forth. Perhaps if NIMBYs didn’t exist on litigating every transit project in this country then mass transit would be a lot more prevalent. Anyway, we’re talking about HSR versus plane, not California HSR. Yes, you still need to get to a terminal but in most cases with HSR that involves a short trip on local transit which costs a few dollars, not a 30 minute to 1 hour+ taxi ride costing some tens of dollars. That eats up any supposed difference in airfare versus train fare. Besides that, the train is a lot more comfortable than flying.

  36. Actually, you probably can hijack a train. More importantly, all you have to do is damage on piece of track to cause a derailment. And of course a terrorist can easily take a bomb on a train in a briefcase or a backpack as the terrorists in London and Madrid did. Simply untrue that many potential HSR passengers in California will leave near a station any more than many now live near airports. The airlines in the state will always be faster than any possible HSR train, and they will be able to quickly change their ticket prices to compete if ticket price is an issue. Even driving between, say, SF and LA will always be a financial bargain for a family in a car that can’t afford to buy tickets for everyone.

  37. HSR is as fast or faster than flying out to distances of 300 to 500 miles. That’s as true in CA as it is in Japan, France, or anywhere else.

    Even driving between, say, SF and LA will always be a financial bargain for a family in a car that can’t afford to buy plane or train tickets for the whole family.

    No bargain unless people’s time has no value. Even best case driving takes twice as long as HSR. Add in California’s legendary traffic jams, which will only get worse as the state gets more populous, and it takes a lot longer.

    How much does it cost to own a car? It’s certainly a lot more than buying HSR tickets for the family the few times a year you might take a long trip. Besides that, ever think some people can’t drive, and don’t want to fly? That’s why you have trains.

    Prop. 1A forbids any operating subsidies. That simply means CA HSR will need to generate enough revenue via tickets to pay for operating costs and maintenance. That’s no problem. Every other HSR system in the world already does that. You need government to bankroll the initial infrastructure, but after that HSR is self-sustaining.

  38. If it’s real HSR, it ought to make SF-LA trips take about 3-4 hours. Counting airport security and lag time getting to/from airports, air travel would be lucky to match the travel time of HSR at that distance.

  39. “travelers still have to get to and from a terminal/station”

    True, of course, but a greater concentration of origins and destinations exists at/near city centers, not suburban airport locations.

  40. Technically the war on drugs was started by the leftover Prohibitionists (look up the Marihuana Tax Act).

  41. No, you didn’t explain how to get intelligent competent people into power. You’re assuming a deus ex machina change in system.

    I’ve spent decades studying *how you change the system*. You have to pay attention to that. How did Earl Grey pass the Great Reform Bill? How was the English Bill of Rights and the Glorious Revolution pushed through? How did FDR pass the New Deal? How did the Federalists push through the Constitution? How were the February and October revolutions accomplished? How did Sun-Yat-Sen oust the Dowager Empress?

    For what it’s worth, FDR, Lincoln, and Wilson were most certainly smeared heavily by the propaganda press of their time. They figured out how to bypass it and outcompete it, FDR with his “fireside chats”. Jefferson was a propaganda master himself.

    We need leaders who are on the right side, perhaps because of enlightened self-interest — but who are also completely merciless.

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