The U.S. House of Representatives voted May 13 to cut rather than expand Amtrak’s budget not even 24 hours after a massive Amtrak derailment accident that killed eight passengers and injured over a hundred others .
The Republican majority-led House Appropriations committee voted against several amendments to the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Bill that would have increased Amtrak’s funding by a vote that was neatly divided down party lines of 30 to 21. The bill cuts Amtrak’s current grants by $252 million, leaving the service’s rail spending at $1.14 billion. The 15 percent budget cut applies to Amtrak’s capital spending not it’s funding for safety and operations.
Democrats on the panel lobbied to raise Amtrak’s funding by $1 billion, putting it at a $2.45 billion total, a movement that was backed by President Barack Obama. Republicans in retort argued that such an increase in spending would put the legislation above spending caps and could not be made without offsetting the increase with cuts in the budget elsewhere.
One panelist, Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, did not consider the recent Amtrak crash relevant to this funding decision. In discussion, he told Democratic panelists who brought up the recent crash in lobbying for an increased Amtrak budget, “Don’t use this tragedy in that way. It was beneath you.”
In contrast, Rep. David Price, D-N.C., who is a ranking member of the Appropriations Committee’s transportation subcommittee, released a statement stating, “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.”
“The majority’s shortsighted, draconian budget cuts stand in the way of the investments that a great country must make,” Price continued in his statement.
Safety for Amtrak passengers is a growing concern among citizens after the Train 188 derailment that happened despite the installment of positive train control on the tracks.
The system brings together GPS, wireless radio and computers that stop trains from colliding, derailing or speeding by slowing a train to a stop if it is not being operated according to the system’s rules. However, on the stretch of the tracks where Train 188 derailed, the system was not in place. Amtrak has, to date, only installed this system on select parts of its Northeast Corridor rail network. Positive train control was mandated by Congress to be installed on all railroads in the U.S. by 2015, but no funds were ever allocated for its installation.
According to safety investigators, the technology might have prevented the derailment, as Train 188 was found to have been traveling at 106 mph entering a 50 mph limit curve.
“We feel that had such a system been installed in this section of track, this accident would not have occurred,” Robert Sumwalt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said in a news conference May 13.
Republican House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio spoke on the controversial vote at a press conference May 14, defending the budget cut, “Obviously it’s not about funding,” Boehner said. “The train was going twice the speed limit. Adequate funds were there, no money’s been cut from rail safety.”
Drexel University students voiced that their travels and experiences in other countries have made them aware that American public transportation is lacking compared to other developed countries in terms of infrastructure, cleanliness and speed.
John Wojciechowski, an international area studies major has traveled on Amtrak to Providence, Rhode Island, Boston and Washington D.C. He has also traveled on trains in France, Spain and Italy. He stated that trains in Europe are better maintained by the government and more valued by the people.
“Commuter trains are cleaner and faster and high speed trains are available for longer distances and are extremely convenient,” Wojciechowski commented.
For comparison, a 222-mile train ride from Madrid to Valencia, Spain, on Renfe has a market time of 1 hour and 40 minutes. The 224-mile train ride from Washington D.C. to New York on which Train 188 derailed is marketed on Amtrak’s website as a 3 hour and 20 minute ride .
Vaughn Shirey, an environmental science major, has used Amtrak to get to New York City. He voiced that he thinks other countries place more priority on trains and public transportation than the United States and compares his public transportation experience in this country to that he had with trains in Japan where he stayed for two months on a cultural exchange program.
“I used [trains] all the time in Japan. They’re a lot cleaner and felt a lot safer — even the tracks are shiny,” Shirey said. “There’s also a lot more availability as to where you can go on a train.
“The [high priority of public transportation spending] is 100 percent evident in their infrastructure, and the trust that a majority of the Japanese put into the system. I also agree that additional funding could prevent such accidents,” Shirey continued referring to the derailment of Train 188. “Whether that funding be allocated to research and development or safety training.”
Two years ago, the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report for 2012-2013 ranked the United States 25 among other world nations in infrastructure quality, ranking below countries
Before this vote goes into effect in October it will need to pass through both the U.S. House and the Senate in fall 2015.