At least seven people were killed and over 200 people were injured last night when Amtrak Regional 188 derailed in Philadelphia on its way to New York City. Today the GOP members of the House Appropriations Committee voted to reduce the Amtrak budget to $252 million, a 15-percent reduction from last year, despite the increase in Amtrak riders. Democrats on the panel lost the battle to boost Amtrak funding by $1 billion, to $2.4 billion.
While Congress demands that Amtrak make a profit, highways and airports receive 45 times the subsidies for Amtrak. The GOP consistently reduces Amtrak subsidies to achieve privatization of the Northeast Corridor, which guts the company’s primary revenue and kills Amtrak. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) pointed out that every other country in the world subsidizes its trains:
“It just points out again how terrible our nation’s infrastructure is…. If you went to Asia, Europe, and saw the high-speed trains, they’re all on a dedicated line. They’re all straight as an arrow. It’s just embarrassing what we do with our infrastructure.”
Former Obama administration Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican, said, “America is in a crisis when it comes to infrastructure.”
The wreck has shut down Amtrak’s route between Boston and Washington, its busiest and most profitable, for an indefinite time. Every year for a decade, the route has broken ridership records. The workforce on these trains contribute $50 billion each year to the U.S. GDP. Yet, starved of funds to keep up with the increased demand, the Northeast Corridor has a backlog of repairs requiring $4.3 billion in 2019 while it expects $872 million because of dwindling federal funding. In this area Amtrak suffers with unrepaired bridges and tunnels dating over a century, “functionally obsolete” rail interlockings, and trains relying on 1930s-era components.
The last time Congress managed to pass an Amtrak bill was in 2008 when a derailed commuter train killed 25 people and the GOP helped to fast-track the bill to George W. Bush. The GOP in this Congress argued that there was no reason to take the accident into consideration. Much has been said about the speed of the train and how money could not have stopped this possible reason for the wreck. Little has been said about how an advanced safety technology can prevent high-speed derailments. The “positive train control” (PTC) automatically slows or even halts trains that are moving too fast or heading into a danger zone. Under current law, the rail industry must adopt the technology by the end of this year. With the PTC, Amtrak 188 could not have reached the speed of 106 mph while approached the curve with a 50 mph speed limit. The current deadline for PTC installation is the end of 2015, but lawmakers are calling for long extensions. Last March, the Senate Commerce voted to extend the deadline to 2020.
Passenger trains are not the only ones that are causing property destruction and the loss of human lives. Across the country, trains hauling oil, nicknamed “bomb trains,” derail, blow up into huge fires, and pollute the environment. Just weeks ago, the Department of Transportation released new rules designed to protect the country from exploding trains. Guidelines include sturdier new tank cars and retrofitted older cars that carry crude oil and ethanol, a better braking standard, and improved protocols on routing, speed, and information for local government agencies.
A radical shift in the new standards is that they actually rescind a requirement that the DOT issued last year in which railroads were to notify states about bomb trains’ volume and frequency. The new rules require only providing states with contact information for officials with access to this information. Oregon Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden stated, “Instead of providing first responders more details about oil shipments, railroads will simply be required to give our firefighters a phone number.” Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) commented that the new rule is the equivalent of saying “let the oil trains roll.”
Although the new bomb train rules might be well intentioned, a train using the new, so-called safer, tank cars exploded in North Dakota the week after the announcement of the guidelines. That explosion followed four others in the first three months of 2015 that spilled crude oil into drinking water supplies and blasted fireballs in the sky. Companies can also continue to use the older tank cars forever if trains have fewer than 35 or fewer than 20 in a row. The new mandated electronically controlled pneumatic brakes are good news, but trains don’t have to use them until 2021.
The new speed guidelines would also not have prevented these train explosions. Mile-long bomb trains carrying three million gallons of explosive crude can continue to travel at more than twice the rated “puncture velocity” of even the new tank cars–50 mph except for “high threat” urban areas when they should drop their speed to 40 mph. Three of the first four explosive accidents in 2015 occurred at speeds below 35 mph, and the fourth was at 43 mph, only three miles over the new speed limit.
While oil companies are responsible for the trains themselves, other companies are responsible for the railroads. Before 2009, fewer than 10,000 tank cars of oil were transported by rail each year in the United States. In 2012, that number increased to 230,000 cars and escalated to 430,000in 2013. CSX is a major company that owns 21,000 of railway in eastern U.S. Because fines are cheaper than maintenance, CSX fails to repair tracks and bridges. The 2014 derailment of 20 oil tankers, three of them going into the James River, cost CSX under $400,000.
While bomb trains killing people, burning towns, and polluting the environment is horrible, the country has bigger problems. Of the 7,500+ nuclear weapons stored in the United States, many of them are located in North Dakota. A 15-minute segment on The Rachel Maddow Show describes the deadly connection between missiles and the bomb trains. This website provides a map for bomb trains in the United States and shows the huge number of miles in North Dakota.
One-third of the 150 loaded, primed and ready to fire missiles are in the Bakken oil field, that ships out millions of gallons of highly volatile crude oil on bomb trains. One of these missile bases is the site of a 2007 incident when six nuclear-tipped AGM-29 Advanced Cruise missiles were accidentally loaded on a B-52 headed for Barksdale AFB, the main staging base for B-52s flown to the Middle East. They were missing for 36 hours.
This is Infrastructure Week, and the GOP ignores the problems of not moving forward on the country’s infrastructure. Beyond the train disasters, the lack of funding for infrastructure is horrific. From the Harvard Business Review:
“Goods are delayed at clogged ports. Delayed or cancelled flights cost the U.S. economy an estimated $30-40 billion per year – not to mention ill will of disgruntled passengers. The average American wastes 38 hours a year stuck in traffic. This amounts to 5.5 billion hours in lost U.S. productivity annually, 2.9 gallons of wasted fuel, and a public health cost of pollution of about $15 billion per year, according to Harvard School of Public Health researchers. The average family of four spends as much as 19% of its household budget on transportation. But inequality also kicks in: the poor can’t afford cars, yet are concentrated in places without access to public transportation. To top it all, federal funding for highways, with a portion for mass transit, is about to run out.”
Happy Infrastructure Week!