When pro-conservative FOX News is calling conservatives out, you know you have a problem. And yet, that is exactly what has happened with Republican insistence that money is not a factor in what happened to Amtrak on May 12. While Republican law makers continue to insist that this is an open and shut case of human error, most observers are asking some very hard questions about Amtrak, railroads, federal funding, and federal mandates. When one of the staunchest conservative news sources is one of these observers, it is definitely time to start taking these questions seriously.
This new round of criticism was all triggered by the crash of Amtrak’s Northeast Regional Train 188, which took place shortly after 9:00 PM on one of the busiest rail corridors in the U.S. The train was just outside of Philadelphia when it entered a 55 MPH curve at nearly twice the posted speed. Going off the tracks, the incident resulted in the deaths of eight people and injuries to over two hundred. This has led to serious questions about railroad safety.
Railroad safety, particularly in terms of train use for commuters, has been around for a while. People have been using trains for commuter traffic since the early 1800s. Chicago was the first city to actively engage in planning entire communities around commuter rail, starting in 1856. Passenger safety has been around for a while.
In the second half of the 19th century, Republicans and railroads worked hand in hand. Republicans understood the power of the railroads as tools of industry and as a means to bring workers and factory owners together to drive our economy into one that would dominate the world in the 20th century. Republicans promoted the advancement of railroads through numerous public-private partnerships, selling government bonds (which they saw a profit on) and setting aside public lands for the use of private railroads.
In many ways, the modern railway system was a Republican creation, and it is a very important and successful one.
This Republican support would remain for quite some time to come. In 1970, Congress passed the Rail Passenger Service Act, creating Amtrak. Republican president Richard Nixon signed the act into law, and the U.S. entered the for-profit commuter transportation business.
Republican attitudes towards our railroads drastically changed in the ‘90s though. Newt Gingrich rode into Congress with a contract with America that highlighted fiscal conservatism. Newt wanted to slash the budget so that we could live within our means as a nation (a good idea), and Amtrak was one of his targets.
Now, let’s be fair. Newt had reasons for targeting Amtrak. At that point, it was a quarter of a century old and had yet to show the expected profits. (It still hasn’t.) Newt failed to kill Amtrak, but his leadership saw to it that any future chance of profitability was going to be gutted. As Fox News itself stated, “Amtrak survived the Republican revolution of the mid-1990s — although Congress began starving the service.”
This leads us to the rhetoric that has been going around regarding the crash on the 12th. There are many quotes that I can pull summarizing the debate between the Republican leadership and everyone else, but a single one summarizing things nicely. When asked about how funding related to the crash, House Speaker John Boehner cut off the reporter asking the question.
“Are you really going to ask such a stupid question? Listen. They started this yesterday, it’s all about funding, it’s all about funding. The train was going twice the speed limit. Adequate funds were there, no money’s been cut from rail safety, and the House passed a bill earlier this spring to reauthorize Amtrak and to authorize a lot of these programs. It’s hard for me to imagine that people take the bait on some of the nonsense that gets spewed around here.”
The program in question is the requirement that Amtrak install the Positive Train Control system. Mandated in 2008, this system is to be integrated into all trains by the end of 2015 (a target no one seems likely to reach). The PTC’s purpose is specifically to prevent exactly the sort of accident as we saw in Philly. Should the engineer of a train fail to start breaking in time, the PTC takes over, slowing the train automatically.
The problem here is that Boehner used the word “adequate”. It is here that conservative ally Fox News actually parts ways with the Republican leadership. Even though Boenher was correct in stating that no funding was cut from the safety programs, nearly $200 million was cut from Amtrak’s Capital Expenditures Account as a consequence of sequestration. The safety fund was left unmodified. It wasn’t cut, but it wasn’t grown either.
Amtrak has been working to install the PTC into its national network of tracks and trains over the past five years. To implement it, it has been given a budget totaling to $110 million. This sounds like a large amount of money, and in absolute terms it is. But when you take a strong look at relative values, you begin to understand why even a staunch, fiscally conservative news outlet like Fox News is unable to agree that $110 million is “adequate”.
Remember when I mentioned Chicago as the first community to purposefully design itself around rail transit? In many ways Chicago continues to be the first city for train commuters. The city is utterly dependent on Metra trains to get commuters where it needs to go. As such, Chicago has been working hard to get their local transit system equipped with PTC. In spite of all of their efforts, they are going to miss the 2015 deadline issued by Congress by two years.
So what is the final tally for adding PTC to Metra by 2017 for this single city? $350 million.
Amtrak seemed to have a much better understanding of the scale of this requirement than the congressional leaders that mandated it. The Federal Railroad Administration asked Congress to provide $825 million to be able to install the system into Amtrak’s trains and the tracks they run on.
Again, instead of getting the $825 million the government’s own train industry watchdog called for, Congress only provided $110 million to provide safety systems for Amtrak’s coast to coast system, less than a third of what the city of Chicago alone requires to implement the same system.
Of course, the system had been installed where this particular accident occurred. The problem is that it hadn’t yet been switched on. Why? The simple fact is that Amtrak had found themselves having to spend three years just negotiating for the necessary radio frequencies needed to use the system. Only then could they get the proper FCC licensing for the system. Those frequencies had been in the hands of the private sector. You can guess what it took to finally get those frequencies. A chunk of that $110 million.
So ultimately, even Fox News has been forced to agree with Democrats when they express disbelief that this accident had nothing to do with funding. It flat out did.
Reducing big government and easing the financial burden the tax payers are struggling under is not just a good idea, it’s the only idea that will prolong America’s economic dominance. But the conservative leadership is saying things that even the strongest Republican allies are rolling their eyes at. It’s time to stop saying these things, and start admitting the truth.
Amtrak is seriously underfunded. Conservatives know this. Fox News knows this. We just need our conservative leadership to openly acknowledge the fact, then tell people why it is so badly underfunded.
We just don’t have the money. Even with sequestration we are spending far beyond our means, and it is going to come home to roost. When it does it’s going to take down far more than Amtrak.
That’s why, next time Boenher or any other conservative leader gets asked if it was about the money, he needs to stand up and say “You’re darn right it’s about the money. We do not have enough money to be able to provide the safety the public deserves. The piggy bank is empty, the government simply does not have the funds. Therefore, I will be bringing a bill before Congress that will provide the necessary structure to restore commuter rail to the private sector, where they can do what is needed to ensure that the funds are raised to be able to make America’s commuter rail safe. It’s hard for me to imagine that people take the subsidized transit nonsense that gets spewed around here.”
I’m sure that is something Fox News can agree with.
For an alternative view of this pressing issue, check out Alex Christy’s recent article “How Much is Enough?”