Sometimes, congressional Republicans have an odd sense of timing. Just hours after the deadly derailment of Amtrak 188, GOP lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee took up transportation spending measures, voting to slash Amtrak's budget, while also rejecting Democratic proposals to bolster infrastructure and train safety.
As the debate unfolded yesterday, things got a little ugly. Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) argued that Congress bore some responsibility for the tragic accident by failing to make the proper investments. Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), incensed, responded, "You tied it directly to an accident and a tragedy and suggested because we hadn't funded it that caused that accident and you have no idea what caused it -- and that's a shame."
Soon after, Republicans on the Appropriations Committee went ahead and did exactly what they intended to do -- cutting rail investment -- as if the accident in Philadelphia hadn't just happened the night before. For many conservatives, there's no reason to connect the two -- if the derailment was the result of human error, Congress and budgetary choices are irrelevant.
The truth is more complicated. The New York Times reports today on rail technology you probably heard Rachel talking about last night.
For the second time in two years, a passenger train traveling well above its speed limit has derailed, leaving a trail of death and injuries. And for the second time, existing technology that might have prevented the accident was missing.Amtrak has installed the technology, known as positive train control, on parts of its rail network in the Northeast Corridor. But the technology, designed to automatically slow or stop a train to prevent accidents, was not available on a critical stretch of track in Philadelphia where Train No. 188 derailed on Tuesday night, killing at least seven and injuring more than 200.
Robert Sumwalt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, made things plain while talking to reporters yesterday afternoon: positive train control "is not installed for this area where the accident occurred, where the derailment occurred.... Based on what we know right now, we feel that had such a system been installed in this section of track, this accident would not have occurred."
Among the votes House Republicans cast yesterday? Voting down a Democratic measure to invest immediately in expanded use of positive train control.
If you missed Rachel's segment on this last night, I hope you'll take the time to check it out.
To briefly summarize, in late 2008, Congress actually approved the Rail Safety Improvement Act, which, among other things, required technological upgrades to the nation's rail system, including mandates on the accident-avoiding positive train control, which can automatically slow trains down remotely.
But Congress also gave the entire industry all kinds of time: the deadline to extend positive train control to all major rail lines is the end of this year: December 31st, 2015. And even this is too soon for much of the industry, which has lobbied Congress to push the deadline to 2020. From last night's segment:
"This is not a mystery and this is also not hard.... This is something we know how to do, and we've done it in patches, pieces of track here and there."We also know we need to do it. It's no mystery here, because what we need to do is something that we need to do concerning our nation's infrastructure, honestly as a nation we really just can't be bothered to get stuff like this done. It's almost like our political system is designed to fail our infrastructure."I mean, the people, American people, left, right and center, want infrastructure investment.... Politicians, however, don't like voting for it.... We are a great nation that has allowed the world-class national infrastructure that our grandparents built and our parents handed down to us to erode and suffer and starve to the point that it is decrepit and deadly."This is a failure of governance. This is on Congress' head."
For more on this, David Leonhardt noted yesterday that federal investment in infrastructure is at a generational low, while Philip Bump added rail investment struggles to find political support at least in part because people in Republican districts generally don't take trains.