The derailment of an Amtrak train just north of Philadelphia Tuesday evening, killing at least seven people and injuring over 200, is focusing attention on a long-running campaign led by conservative lawmakers in Washington to cut funding for the national passenger rail service.
It’s not yet clear what caused the derailment. But Amtrak, a public funded rail service that's run as a private corporation, has long been in the cross-hairs of Congressional budget-cutters, including high-profile figures like Sens. John McCain and Tom Coburn, and George W. Bush—even as its outdated technology and infrastructure require increasing upgrades, and ridership increases.
Amtrak’s critics—many of whom are ideologically committed to shrinking government, and represent areas of the country that aren’t heavily dependent on passenger rail transport—describe the system as wasteful and inefficient. Its supporters, including labor unions and many northeastern elected officials, say the problem is that Amtrak, which moves 32 million people a year, has long been inadequately funded.
“Amtrak has been nickel and dimed to death for its entire history,” said Ed Wytkind of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department. “But when something goes wrong, they blame Amtrak, despite all the resource-starving.”
Wytkind made clear that since the cause of the derailment isn’t yet known, he wasn’t linking it to Amtrak’s funding issues.
Still, he said, “it’s appropriate for the media to ask questions about whether this company has the resources it needs, and if not, why is Congress not funding it, when both Republicans and Democrats rely on Amtrak. I think that’s a legitimate question to ask today in the context of Philadelphia.”
In the Senate, small government conservatives have long targeted Amtrak. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has in the past proposed legislation to break up Amtrak and move it towards privatization. As chair of the Senate Commerce committee, he staunchly opposed federal subsidies for the rail network, and he voted against a 2008 funding bill. That bill was the last time that Congress funded Amtrak through an official reauthorization—and it came only after a train crash in California that killed 25.
"I believe that passenger rail can and should be a part of our Nation's transportation system, but I continue to question how it should be structured and managed, knowing that Amtrak has failed to meet even the lowest of expectations for 30 years," McCain said in 2001.
Mitt Romney, too, targeted Amtrak for cuts when he ran for president in 2012. "Amtrak ought to stand on its own feet or its own wheels or whatever you'd say," he said at the time.
Republican presidents have also been in on the assault. President George W. Bush submitted a budget proposal in 2005 that aimed to zero out all federal subsidies for Amtrak. President Ronald Reagan did likewise in all eight budgets he submitted to Congress, and his budget director, David Stockman, called Amtrak a “mobile, money-burning machine” and an “amenity that the nation cannot afford and can readily do without.” President Richard Nixon is said to have had to overcome intense opposition from within his own administration to create the system in 1970.
More recently, Tom Coburn, the former Republican senator from Oklahoma, also was a leading Amtrak critic during his time in Washington. Coburn fought against funding Amtrak through the 2009 stimulus bill, calling the system “poorly run and poorly managed.”
"That doesn't mean we shouldn't have a train service, but we [shouldn't] give additional money and reward incompetency and inefficiency,” Coburn said at the time. “If that's what the stimulus is about, we're in a whole lot worse trouble."
Even before Tuesday night’s tragedy, the issue was in play on Capitol Hill. A House appropriations panel held a hearing Wednesday morning on a funding bill for 2016 that would slash Amtrak funding from $1.4 billion to $1.13 billion.
“We are approaching a crisis as passenger rail investment languishes,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said last week during a field hearing on the issue.
Only eight out of 34 Republicans and eight out of 25 Democrats are on the House Transportation committee are from the northeast or mid-atlantic, the regions that rely by far the most on passenger rail service.
The House passed a longer-term Amtrak funding bill, the Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act, earlier this year, but the Senate hasn’t acted on its own bill yet. The House bill kept Amtrak’s budget relatively flat, at around $1.7 billion per year through 2019. (Compare that to the $128 billion the Chinese government will be funding its rail system this year.)
Advocates for passenger rail say a funding increase is needed to upgrade the aging network. But they took solace from the fact that the bill—shepherded through by Transportation Committee chair Rep. Bill Shuster—didn’t make major cuts or try to outsource or privatize parts of the system, as some Republicans had wanted.
Some lawmakers had other priorities beyond the funding question. Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) fought successfully to add a provision to the bill that allows pets to travel on Amtrak trains.
"It is amazing to me to find out as somebody from California, when I travel back and forth with my dog, I can put them on a plane, but yet I can’t put them on a train to go up to the northeast corridor or anywhere else across the country," Denham said on the House floor.
It could have been much worse. An amendment offered by Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) would have eliminated all federal subsidies for Amtrak. It failed by a vote of 272-147, with Shuster opposing it. McClintock is one of several tea party-aligned House Republicans who have made noises about blocking Amtrak funding, though most lined up behind Shuster to support the bill in the end.
“There are a small number of bomb-throwers who always go after general funding bills and are always trying to de-fund it or slash the funding dramatically,” said Wytkind.
Rep. John Mica, Shuster’s predecessor as transportation chair, was a major advocate of radical changes to Amtrak’s model. But his influence has waned since he left the chairmanship.
Part of the issue is that lawmakers often fail to appropriate the full amount passed in an original funding bill. The 2008 reauthorization gave Amtrak $2 billion, but appropriators never signed off on anywhere near that amount.
Wytkind said when it comes to transportation, you get what you pay for.
“When you starve a capital-intensive company that’s engaged in transportation, your margin for error gets diminished more and more, to a point now where you’re sort of on the edge all the time, because your technology is not keeping up with your needs.”