WASHINGTON - More money could become available to compensate victims of the May 12 Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia and fund rail safety upgrades under a bipartisan transportation bill, introduced Tuesday and expected to race to passage in Congress this week.
Both provisions are small parts of a 1,300-page, five-year, roughly $300 billion package that touches on highway safety, railroad law, and road programs nationwide.
The measure, agreed to by House and Senate negotiators to reconcile competing transportation bills, would raise the accident liability cap for railroads to $295 million, up from a $200 million cap first set in 1997.
The increase was proposed specifically for victims of the Philadelphia crash, and would retroactively apply to their claims.
Personal injury lawyers have said the existing limit would not be enough to cover the damages related to the wreck, which killed eight and injured more than 200.
Under the new proposal, the cap for all rail accidents also will rise to around $295 million 30 days after the bill becomes law, and then be adjusted for inflation every five years. The initial increase reflects the change in inflation since the cap first was approved.
"When accidents occur, victims and their families should be adequately compensated and not subject to an outdated liability cap," said Sen. Bill Nelson (D., Fla.), who pushed to raise the limit. "This agreement will go a long way toward helping the victims and their families get the compensation they deserve."
Tom Kline, a Philadelphia lawyer who represents a dozen plaintiffs against Amtrak, called the change "a significant improvement" that creates the opportunity for "a more just result."
Amtrak has said it will not contest its liability for the derailment.
But lawyer Robert Mongeluzzi predicted that the $295 million limit still would not cover all of the damages.
He and Kline, who represent 29 of the roughly 70 people who have filed suit against Amtrak, pressed lawmakers for the change.
The final bill drops language that SEPTA officials had worried could be construed to override state law, which sets a much lower liability limit for accidents involving their rail lines. The compromise package also includes $199 million to help commuter railroads install Positive Train Control, a safety system that could have stopped the Philadelphia crash.
This will be the first time Congress has put money toward the 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 out the system. The new funding would cover a small piece of the cost - expected to top $12 billion.
An extension has given rail lines until at least 2018 to get the system running.
SEPTA is one of few railroads that says it is on track to complete installation this year, and Amtrak says it will have the system in place on the Northeast Corridor by year's end. NJ Transit says it needs several more years to get the system running.
The bill also would require passenger railroads to install cameras to monitor train crews - an idea backed by the National Transportation Safety Board and that could have helped identify the cause of the derailment in Port Richmond..
The Senate approved an increase in the liability limit and funding for Positive Train Control this year, but those provisions were subject to negotiations with the House.
Commuter railroads 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, fit that description. In that case, a judge said he was forced to lower the awards to some victims in order to stay under the limit.