May 13, 2015

I have a story that goes with this. I went out to lunch today (haven't done that in a month or so), and I happened to be in the same restaurant as Mayor Mike Nutter, Sen. Bob Casey and Sen. Pat "Club for Growth" Toomey. When Toomey was paying his bill, I got up to the counter and confronted him. "Senator Toomey, are you still going to vote for the $300 million in Amtrak cuts?"

Mayor Nutter started tut-tutting me: "This is not the time or the place for that." I said no, this was exactly the time and place for that -- that these Republican spending cuts affect real ​people with real lives, and "Senator Toomey, you need to understand that." (I didn't quite poke him, but I did some serious finger wagging.)

Anyway, I think the universe put me in the right place today:

WASHINGTON -- Within a day of an Amtrak derailment that killed at least 7 people and injured many others, a House committee voted Wednesday to slash funding for the railroad service, over objections from Democrats.

The House Appropriations committee rejected multiple amendments to the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Bill that sought to increase funding for Amtrak. The bill cuts the rail service's funding to $1.14 billion, down $251 million from its current level. Democrats offered amendments to raise that funding to the $2.45 billion requested by President Barack Obama, but Republicans rejected the measures, arguing that increasing Amtrak's funding without cutting spending elsewhere would put the legislation above spending caps and threaten to kill the whole bill.

Democrats said it would be worth going over the spending caps to make travel safer for Americans.

"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," David Price (D-N.C.), ranking member of the Appropriations Committee's transportation subcommittee, said in a statement. "The majority’s shortsighted, draconian budget cuts stand in the way of the investments that a great country must make."

Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) said during the committee markup that Congress had "failed" Americans who "expect us to fund their priorities, they expect us to watch over their safety when they get on trains, when they are on planes, when they're in cars and on highways."

"We failed to invest in their safety, we failed to make their safety a priority," he added.

Republicans repeatedly argued that the funding hike would be premature since the cause of the derailment hasn't yet been determined. Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) accused Israel of exploiting the tragedy to support the amendment, and said doing so was "beneath" him.

GOP lawmakers also said that Congress can address the derailment later, once the cause is determined. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), who chairs the transportation subcommittee, said he was confident that Congress would do so. But he rejected the idea that "it is always, no matter what, more money that is the solution."

First of all, this "we don't know what caused the crash" is beside the point. In a real world, where politicians actually do things for people, the Republican-controlled Congress would have funded the previous Democratic legislative mandate for Positive Train Control, the mechanism which overrides a speeding train:

Via Robert Cruickshank:

This wasn’t a high-speed Acela train, but the crash occurred on the same Amtrak-owned Northeast Corridor tracks that the Acela uses.

Yonah Freemark has joined others in suggesting that the lack of positive train control on this section of track contributed to the crash:

Amtrak is planning to install PTC on the remainder of the NEC this year – obviously not in time to save the lives of those who died in the crash. But if the crash was caused by a train that sped into the curve, it would be reminiscent of a far deadlier rail disaster – the Santiago de Compostela disaster that took place in Spain in July 2013. That crash occurred when the operator failed to slow down while entering a curve, on a section of track that had not been upgraded to PTC.

There is of course no reason as of yet to suspect operator error in the Amtrak crash. But now is definitely the time to ask whether funding cuts to Amtrak delayed the implementation of PTC – especially when House Republicans are proposing big cuts to Amtrak just hours after the crash took place:

The measure includes $1.1 billion for the passenger railroad next year. That’s a $251 million cut from current levels. President Barack Obama requested almost $2.5 billion, much more than his previous proposals. Obama’s proposed boost is mostly dedicated to capital investment in track, tunnels and bridges and includes $400 million in grants for capital construction along Amtrak’s Northeast corridor.

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