Share this article

print logo

Tragic derailment shows the need to invest in the nation’s railroads

Amtrak is a critical mode of transportation in the lives of many traveling on the Northeast Corridor and, just like much of this country’s aging infrastructure, it needs immediate attention.

The move by Republicans who voted in a congressional committee to cut more than $200 million from the rail system’s budget was wrong. And the timing couldn’t have been worse.

A train traveling from Washington to New York derailed last week, killing at least eight and injuring more than a couple hundred. Reports following that tragic accident have correctly focused on the deficiencies and shortcomings of an aging system, much like the nation’s infrastructure, in need of an upgrade.

Many Republicans believe this for-profit corporation should not be subsidized. But Amtrak has a significant presence in the lives of those along the Northeast Corridor, countless who rely on it to travel between Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington. And Washington subsidizes roads and airports, which facilitate for-profit corporations. This isn’t so different.

Train travel fits nicely into the philosophy of greener transportation. For people just needing an easy, convenient way to get from here to there, it offers a somewhat affordable, hassle-free alternative. Amtrak may not seem as useful to some – Bloomberg News reported that Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker opposed rail improvements for their states “as a waste of taxpayer dollars” – it is a way of life for northerners, epitomized by Northeast Regional Train No. 188.

The train from Washington to New York was traveling at 106 miles per hour as it entered a curve where the speed limit was 55 miles per hour. Amtrak has installed technology known as positive train control along much of its Northeast Corridor but not along a stretch in Philadelphia where the accident took place, though reports said the system may have been only months from being operational. The technology can slow or stop trains before an accident.

Congress has mandated the technology be installed along the country’s rail system by the end of 2015 following another fatal train crash a few years ago in California. That death toll stood at 25 with more than 100 injured.

Despite good intentions, the logistics of making this upgrade are proving to be challenging – and expensive. The New York Times cited an estimate by the Association of American Railroads at $10 billion for the railroads. The group said operators had already spent $5.2 billion.

No matter, since Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee blocked a Democratic amendment that would have added $1.3 billion to Amtrak spending. Republicans also blocked another change to increase by $825 million the adoption of positive train control technology.

The president, Democrats and a few Republicans understand the critical need to subsidize improvements for Amtrak. It is an integral part of the nation’s transportation system.