Amtrak disaster spurs debate over U.S. infrastructure
(CNN) — President Barack Obama on Thursday called for greater federal spending on infrastructure in the wake of the deadly Amtrak crash that killed eight people.
Obama’s comments, in which he also offered his condolences to the victim’s families, came amid scrutiny over whether enough was being done to ensure safety on the publically funded rail service.
“Until we know for certain what caused this tragedy, I just want to reiterate what I have already said: That we are a growing country, with a growing economy,” Obama said at a Camp David press conference. “We need to invest in the infrastructure that keeps up that way and not just when something bad happens like a bridge collapse or a train derailment but all the time. That’s what great nations do.”
Earlier Thursday, a House Republican appropriations committee aide said technology that the National Transportation Safety Board and some Democrats say could have prevented the Amtrak crash was in place on the stretch of track in Philadelphia where the deadly derailment occurred.
But the safety system, known as Positive Train Control, hadn’t been activated due to technical issues.
The revelation comes as Democrats and Republicans have battled over whether the rail service is being funded at levels adequate enough to ensure safety. On Wednesday — less than 24 hours after the New York-bound train crashed — the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee voted to reduce grants to Amtrak by $252 million, a drop of about 15% from last year’s level, though the cut would apply only to Amtrak’s capital spending and wouldn’t touch funding levels for safety and operations.
The appropriations committee also defeated an amendment that would have spent $825 million to fund PTC, a system that combines GPS, wireless radio and computers to monitor trains and stop them from colliding, derailing or speeding.
Republicans’ frustration on the issue boiled over Thursday as House Speaker John Boehner ripped a reporter for asking him about Democrats’ efforts to tie Amtrak funding to the crash.
The lack of PTC on the section of the track in question has been cited by the NTSB and some Democrats as the reason for the crash. Not having PTC installed everywhere was the equivalent to playing “railway Russian roulette” with people’s safety, said Sen. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts.
But after Wednesday’s vote, Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee reached out to Amtrak to get a report on the progress of the PTC system’s implementation in the section where the Amtrak train derailed, Florida Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart said.
Amtrak told the committee that PTC was installed in the section of track where the accident occurred, but it had not been activated due to technical issues with the Federal Communications Commission, including getting enough bandwidth to upgrade radios, said the House Republican appropriations committee aide, who requested anonymity because the crash remains under federal investigation.
An FCC official said that the spectrum Amtrak wanted to use in 2011 was owned by someone else.
“It took them three more years to negotiate with private parties to acquire the needed spectrum for the Washington D.C. to New York corridor,” the official said in a statement. “Once Amtrak finalized their application, the Commission approved it within two days.”
Diaz-Balart, who chairs the House Transportation spending panel, told CNN the committee has been in discussions with the Federal Railroad Administration and Amtrak about the status of PTC technology and noted that the Northeast Corridor route was “really far ahead, really far along” in getting the system installed compared to other routes around the country.
Republicans on Thursday also pointed to a 2012 report from Amtrak’s Office of Inspector General that said implementation of the PTC technology has been hampered by other factors, including permitting for radio towers necessary for the PTC system due to factors like environmental regulations and rules about historic preservation.
The report was one of the reasons the Senate Commerce Committee, in a bipartisan vote, recently extended the deadline for implementing PTC from the end of this year to 2020. Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee who has dealt extensively with the PTC issue, said freight companies pushed for the extension.
“Everybody realized they couldn’t get it done by the end of the year, which is what the law required,” he told CNN. “We’ve got to be realistic and practical and recognize too there are also safety issues associated with doing this and not doing it in the right way.”
Thune said satellite coordination may have been responsible for why the PTC system had not yet been activated on the fateful stretch of track in Philadelphia.
Amtrak’s CEO said Thursday that the service will have PTC installed along all of the much-traveled Northeast Corridor by the end of 2015.
“Twenty-eight years ago was the last time there was a derailment on the Northeast Corridor — 28 years — and 300 million people have ridden Amtrak since then, no derailment, no loss of life,” said CEO Joe Boardman. “Today we’re committing to, I’m committing to, meeting the requirement of Positive Train Control. That will happen on the Northeast Corridor by the end of this year.”
Finger-pointing on Capitol Hill
Democrats continued to hammer Republicans on Thursday over funding for Amtrak, prompting Boehner to snap at a reporter who brought up a suggested link between Amtrak funding and Tuesday’s deadly crash.
“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.”
Instead, Boehner insisted that the train’s speed — twice the speed limit at the curve where the train derailed — was the only relevant factor.
“The train was going twice the speed limit. 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,” Boehner said. “It’s hard for me to imagine that people take the bait on some of the nonsense that gets spewed around here.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, called Boehner’s comments “patently false.”
“Experts have made clear that Positive Train Control could have prevented the tragedy in Philadelphia,” he said. “It is simply a fact that insufficient funding for Amtrak has delayed the installation of PTC, and to deny a connection between the accident and underfunding Amtrak is to deny reality.”
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Delaware, who rides Amtrak between his Delaware home and Washington, called Wednesday’s House committee vote “striking” and admonished Republicans for cutting Amtrak’s budget at a time when he said the public rail system needs more money to modernize its aging infrastructure.
“If we were investing anything like our competitors, we would have a modern national train system,” Coons said Thursday on CNN’s “New Day.” “We have an aging infrastructure that we have to pay for.”
Coons touted Amtrak’s increased ridership and revenue in recent years as a reason to invest more in the railways, particularly in the Northeast Corridor that connects Washington and Boston.
Democratic Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal also called for increased funding in the wake of the tragedy.
But Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, rebuked Democrats on Wednesday for politicizing the deadly crash.
“Don’t use this tragedy in that way,” he said. “It was beneath you.”
CNN’s Ted Barrett contributed to this report.