Amtrak Crash Puts Spotlight on Washington

Posted May 13, 2015 at 5:05pm

The Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia Tuesday that killed at least seven people and injured hundreds quickly rippled back to Washington, where lawmakers and regulators have been trying to find the right response to a spate of rail accidents in recent years and House appropriators were slated Wednesday to set spending levels for transportation, including Amtrak.

The Washington-New York train was carrying more than 240 passengers, including former Rep. Patrick J. Murphy, D-Pa. Sen. Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., rode the train as far as Wilmington, Del., before disembarking. Murphy, who wasn’t hurt, tweeted about the accident as he helped the injured.

The National Transportation Safety Board headed to the scene to determine the cause of the accident. The derailment disrupted movement along the Northeast Corridor, the most popular service run by Amtrak, the beleaguered company that is often the target of criticism from congressional Republicans. Investigators had recovered the train’s black boxes by early afternoon Wednesday. Data from the boxes indicated the train was traveling at more than 100 miles per hour, well in excess of the posted speed limit.

The crash comes as many lawmakers in Congress have raised concerns over passenger and freight rail safety. A recent string of derailments of trains carrying crude oil from North Dakota have resulted in fiery explosions across the country, leading many to call for federal agencies to bolster standards for tank cars carrying the product. But several deadly passenger rail accidents have prompted questions about whether Washington is doing as much as it should.

The White House was quick to note that transportation infrastructure needs money. “There’s been a concerted effort by Republicans to stand in front of those kinds of advancements,” Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the day after the accident, speaking about efforts to increase investment that include working to implement high-speed rail in trafficked corridors. “The president has been very disappointed in that kind of reaction from the Republican opposition for us to really do something good for the economy and for people across the country. This is why you see the funding increase the president’s proposed in his own budget.”

Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee noted the bill would provide $1.14 billion for Amtrak in fiscal 2016, which is $251 million less than the 2015 enacted level and $1.31 billion less than the president’s request.

The Department of Transportation recently issued final rules bolstering tank-car safety standards and instituting a number of operational procedures to reduce the chances of derailments of trains carrying crude oil and the dangers of fire and explosion if they do derail. Lawmakers had been pushing regulators to finalize those rules, and some have called for stronger action.

Railroads also face a deadline to implement a costly new train safety technology known as positive train control. Congress has mandated it be in place across a significant portion of the industry by Dec. 31, 2015, including on lines that provide commuter or passenger rail.

PTC is a system designed to stop or slow a train before certain types of deadly accidents occur through a number of technologies, including by tracking whether an engineer responds to certain train signals.

The Association of American Railroads has called the 2015 deadline “impossible.”

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., proposed a bill (S 650) that would extend the deadline by five years, which was reported favorably out of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and sent to the Senate floor in March.

Despite calls for more time, the Southern California commuter rail system Metrolink is one agency on track to implement the technology system-wide before year’s end, Metrolink spokesman Jeff Lustgarten said in an email Tuesday night.

The agency suffered a grisly accident in 2008 that killed 25 and injured 135 after an engineer failed to stop at a red signal and collided with a Union Pacific freight train.

The NTSB’s investigation into the Chatsworth, Calif., accident found the absence of PTC technology was a contributing factor. After the train’s engineer texted on his phone and failed to respond to a red signal, PTC could have brought the train to a stop and prevented the accident, the NTSB said.

In an interview with CQ Roll Call in March, Lustgarten said Metrolink had already implemented the system on two of its seven commuter rail lines and planned to go system-wide before the deadline.

Lustgarten said PTC wouldn’t prevent all collisions. The system monitors an engineer’s attention to signals, speed limits and even earthquakes, but it doesn’t have the ability to sense something such as a truck left on the tracks. That was the case in February, in an accident involving Metrolink that injured 28 people. The train’s engineer later died, according to reports.

“Unfortunately, PTC at this point in time would not prevent a collision with a vehicle [that shouldn’t be] on the tracks,” Lustgarten said.