WASHINGTON – The long-running battle over Amtrak funding took on an acidic tone Thursday, sparked by the train derailment in Philadelphia.
Two Democratic senators blasted Republicans for proposing Amtrak budget cuts, saying more investment could have ensured that a critical electronic safety system was in place to prevent the crash.
"Again and again and again we see the consequences of a failure to invest," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.). "The approach to infrastructure in this country, all too commonly, has been patch and pray."
Blumenthal and Sen. Ed Markey (D., Mass) singled out the lack of Positive Train Control at the section of track where the Amtrak #188 derailed. While the electronic safety system has been deployed in sections of the Northeast Corridor, it was not in place at the curve where the accident happened.
A National Transportation Safety Board board member said Wednesday that if positive train control was in place in use the accident "would not have occurred." The train was going more than twice the speed limit, but positive train control can slow or stop a train.
But Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) on Thursday called a reporter's question linking funding and the accident "stupid."
"Are you really going to ask such a stupid question?" he said, according to Politico.
"They started this yesterday, it's all about funding, it's all about funding. Well, obviously it's not about funding," Boehner said. "The train was going twice the speed limit. Adequate funds are there, no money's been cut from rail safety and the House passed a bill earlier this spring to reauthorize Amtrak, and authorize a lot of these programs. And it's hard for me to imagine that people take the bait on some of the nonsense that gets spewed around here."
Blumenthal and Markey, however, pointed to a Republican bill, advanced Wednesday hours after the crash, that would cut Amtrak funding by $260 million from current levels and criticized a bipartisan bill to push back the deadline for rail systems to implement positive train control.
Markey said more investments in Amtrak would ensure that positive train control was in place up and down the rail system, instead of only some sections.
"The more the budget is cut, the more Amtrak has to make decisions as to which part of the system they are able to ensure has PTC," Markey said, calling it "a dangerous game of railway Russian roulette."
The spending bill reducing Amtrak funding advanced out of a House committee Wednesday. In that hearing Philadelphia Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.) proposed a more than $1 billion funding increase to Amtrak – more than doubling the Republican amount – but was blocked in a party line vote.
Republicans said money alone won't solve the issue, and noted that they are constrained by spending caps agreed to by both parties.
The battle over funding Amtrak is decades old, with Democrats (many of whom represent communities that rely on rail service) calling for more investment and Republicans (many of whom come from few with rail lines) decrying a system that loses money.
"The problem is you give Amtrak the money and they blow the improvements or squander it," Rep. John Mica (R., Fla.) told National Journal.
One local Republican disagreed. Rep. Ryan Costello (R., Pa.), of Chester County, said he would work to restore Amtrak funding to last year's level. "The last thing we should be doing is cutting funding," he said.
Blumenthal and Markey also focused on a Senate bill, advanced out of committee in March, that would push back to 2020 the deadline for rail systems to install positive train control. The deadline is supposed to be at the end of 2015, but rail systems have raised concerns about the cost and complexity of the system.
Rail operators have had seven years to put the system in place, Blumenthal said, calling more delay "unacceptable."
Philadelphia Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.) made a similar point Wednesday night, calling for a nationwide audit of which rail lines have put the safety system in place.
"We gave them 7 years," Brady said. "If that was done, this train accident would not have happened."
Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) has previously supported delays in the deadline for installing positive train control – speaking out at a hearing in 2011, writing the federal transportation secretary in 2012 and signing onto a bill to push back the deadline in 2013 – but he said Wednesday night that he supports putting the system in place on Amtrak by the end of this year.
"At this point, I think Amtrak ought to go ahead and implement and fully deploy positive train control as soon as it's feasible and I'm very comfortable with the deadline that's long been in statute," Toomey said in a telephone interview. None of his previous calls for delay resulted in changing the deadline, and Amtrak has said it is on track to implement the system as required by the end of the year.
Toomey said his previous support for a delay was because SEPTA already had a similar system and he worried that requiring more spending on positive train control would delay other needed investments in safety, while largely duplicating existing protections. But Toomey said Wednesday his concerns are moot now that SEPTA has put positive train control in place.
The bill he co-sponsored in 2013 would have delayed the deadline for putting positive train control in place for all covered rail lines, including SEPTA and other lines, including Amtrak. He signed on to that measure two months after SEPTA received a federal grant (with Toomey's help) that the agency said would help it implement positive train control on time.
His aides pointed to a 2011 letter Toomey wrote to a key Senate chairman urging a hearing to help make radio spectrum available so that positive train control could be put in place.
A new bill to push back the safety systems deadline advanced out of a Senate committee in March. (Toomey is not a co-sponsor). One supporter, Sen. John Thune (R., S.D.) said Thursday that he still supports a pushing back the deadline, citing technical challenges in putting the system in place.
"We want to make sure that when it gets done, it gets done right," Thune said. "Getting to PTC eventually, it's where everybody wants to go, but it's not going to happen overnight."