Pinching pennies on safety is no way to run a railroad

     Emergency personnel work at the scene of a deadly train derailment, Wednesday, May 13, 2015, in Philadelphia. The Amtrak train, headed to New York City, derailed and crashed in Philadelphia on Tuesday night, killing at least six people and injuring dozens of others. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

    Emergency personnel work at the scene of a deadly train derailment, Wednesday, May 13, 2015, in Philadelphia. The Amtrak train, headed to New York City, derailed and crashed in Philadelphia on Tuesday night, killing at least six people and injuring dozens of others. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

    We give Amtrak roughly $1 billion a year. We waged Bush’s disastrous war in Iraq at a cost of $10 billion a month. Those stats should tell you something about our screwed-up national priorities.

    The Amtrak derailment is a classic case of what can happen when we scrimp on the basics. People are dead because of this. Amtrak has the technology to automatically slow trains traveing at excess speeds – it’s called Positive Train Control – but Amtrak doesn’t have the money to install PTC on all points of the Northeast Corridor because the Amtrak-haters in Congress keep squeezing its budget.

    And you know which party I’m talking about. As ex-GOP congressman Ray LaHood said yesterday, Republicans on the Hill typically hail from states where Amtrak doesn’t run: “They think Amtrak is just the easy place to cut.”

    Yesterday, just hours after the crash, the House Republicans who run the Appropriations Committee nixed a Democratic amendment that would’ve awarded Amtrak extra money – $825 million – to speed the full installation of PTC. The committee’s Republicans then proceeded to chop Amtrak’s overall budget by 20 percent. Amazing. Not even a death toll can shake the fealty to right-wing ideology.

    Amtrak has been installing PTC within its budgetary constraints. It warned in a 2012 government document that the process would be slow: “A significant challenge is ensuring that Amtrak has enough funds available to implement PTC fully…” It hadn’t yet done so on the curving track, north of Center City Philadelphia, where the Tuesday night crash occurred. That’s a shame, because PTC’s sensors and transponders are designed to trump human error; when an engineer is inexplicably hurtling at 100 mph in a 50-mph zone, PTC can slow the train and dictate correct speed.

    Which brings us to what Robert Sumwalt of the National Transportation Safety Board said last night. He was quite succinct: “Had such a system been installed in this section of track, this accident would not have occurred.”

    There you have it. This is not brain surgery, people. Amtrak’s president touted PTC – three years ago – as “the most important rail safety advancement of our time,” and Congress passed a law – seven years ago, in response to an ’08 derailment – mandating that Amtrak fully install PTC by the end of this year. But Congress consistently refuses to give Amtrak nearly enough money to repair and upgrade its outmoded infrastructure, much less fulfill the PTC mandate.

    I’m well aware that we Americans habitually think of ourselves as Number One. But one can dispel that delusion by simply riding a train in Great Britain or Western Europe or Japan. In those cultures, trains get the public money they need because they’re treated as a public good. In terms of annual dollars, the British government – or, to be more specific, the Conservative Party government – spends eight times more money on its trains than we do. China, one of our prime economic competitors, spends 128 times more money on its trains, on an annual basis, than we do.

    But we who are Number One do things differently. Instead of speeding full PTC installation by boosting Amtrak’s federal money – Amtrak gets 1/45th of what the Highway Trust Fund and the Federal Aviation Administration get – some lawmakers have a simpler idea: Punt the PTC installation deadline to 2020. That’s the gist of a Senate bill sponsored by Missouri Republican Roy Blunt (with 13 co-sponsors, two of whom are Democrats), a bill that appears headed for the Senate floor.

    Blunt floated his bill in March – prompting a response from Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal, who warned that pushing back the deadline would imperil more train travelers: “Within the past decade alone, the National Transportation Safety Board has completed more than two dozen train accident investigations that took 65 lives and injured over 1,100 people – all of this, according to the NTSB, could have been prevented by PTC.”

    Well, thanks to the latest derailment, those human tallies just went up. Blumenthal said yesterday, “This accident is exhibit A for ending the delays and getting PTC in place.”

    So here’s a wild thought: Instead of punting to 2020 (and praying that another derailment doesn’t happen in the next five years), why not make passenger safety a top priority – and have Congress pony up the reported $10 billion that full PTC installation will cost?

    Yeah, that sounds like a lot of money. But since we spent that sum each month in Iraq (more than that, actually) – to destabilize the region, further empower Iran, and seed the ground for ISIS – we can certainly spend an equal amount to protect Americans on trains. Only then can we begin to claim, with any credibility, that we’re Number One.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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