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Transportation bill would boost money to Amtrak victims, rail safety

WASHINGTON – More money could become available to the victims of the Amtrak #188 derailment in Philadelphia under a compromise transportation bill expected to be introduced in Congress Tuesday.

The compromise bill will also include new money to help railroads install Positive Train Control, a safety system that could have stopped the Philadelphia crash by remotely slowing or stopping the speeding train.

The sweeping bill, likely to race to passage this week, would change a federal law that limits how much railroads can be required to pay after crashes, according to aides close to the negotiations.

The limit for the May incident would rise to roughly $295 million, up from a long-standing $200 million cap. Trial lawyers said that amount, imposed in 1997, would not be enough to cover the claims in an wreck that killed eight and injured more than 200, including many who suffered life-altering injuries requiring multiple surgeries and long-term care.

Going forward, the cap will increase to match inflation every five years.

"When accidents occur, victims and their families should be adequately compensated and not subject to an outdated liability cap," said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who pushed to raise the limit after the Philadelphia crash.  "This agreement will go a long way toward helping the victims and their families get the compensation they deserve."

The liability change is one small piece of a massive, five-year transportation bill that touches on rail, highway safety and road programs. The measure has been the subject of grueling negotiations throughout the year, as lawmakers debated an array of provisions and how to pay for them.

This bill would mark the first time that Congress puts money toward the Positive Train Control safety system, said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.).

Lawmakers in 2008 required major freight and passenger lines to install the system by the end of 2015, but scant progress has been made. Commuter lines have complained about limited budgets as they tried to roll the system out, so the new funding is aimed at covering a small piece of the cost -- expected to top $12 billion. An extension has given rail lines until at least 2018, and maybe longer, to get the system running.

The exact amount included in the final bill was unclear early Tuesday. The full details were expected to be released later in the day, with quick passage by the House and Senate expected this week.

The Senate had approved an increase in the liability limit and $199 million in new funding for Positive Train Control earlier this year, but those provisions were subject to negotiations with the House, which had not included those items in its transportation bill.

Commuter railroads had opposed an increase in the liability cap, warning that it could hike their insurance costs for the rare accidents in which the damages top $200 million. Only one crash, in California in 2008, has resulted in damages that exceeded the cap. In that case, a judge said he was forced to lower the awards to some victims in order to stay under the limit.

The bicameral compromise was worked out behind closed doors in the past several weeks ahead of a deadline this week to extend federal transportation programs.

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