The Amtrak train that derailed in Philadelphia on Tuesday night was equipped with an automatic speed control system that officials say could have prevented the wreck, which killed eight passengers and injured hundreds. But the system, which was tantalizingly close to being operational, was delayed by budgetary shortfalls, technical hurdles and bureaucratic rules, officials said Thursday.
In 2008 Congress ordered the installation of a safety system that would have prevented Tuesday's crash.
In 2008, Congress ordered the installation of what are known as positive train control systems, which can detect an out-of-control, speeding train and automatically slow it down. But because lawmakers failed to provide the railroads access to the wireless frequencies required to make the system work, Amtrak was forced to negotiate for airwaves owned by private companies that are often used in mobile broadband.
A struggle for airwaves rights slowed down the installation of the safety devices.
Officials said Amtrak had made installation of the congressionally mandated safety system a priority and was ahead of most other railroads around the country.
But the railroad struggled for four years to buy the rights to airwaves in the Northeast Corridor that would have allowed them to turn the system on.
“The transponders were on the tracks,” said one person who attended a Thursday morning briefing for congressional staff members. “But they also said they weren’t operational, because of this ongoing spectrum issue.”
Despite the delays, the system may have been just months from being operational when Northeast Regional Train No. 188 careered into a sharp curve at over 100 miles per hour, twice the posted speed, and hurtled off the tracks Tuesday night. The Federal Communications Commission had approved Amtrak’s application for the purchase of wireless spectrum from an entity called Skybridge Spectrum Foundation on March 5, clearing the way for final tests on the system, a spokeswoman for the commission said.
If the system had been operational, “there wouldn’t have been this accident,” said Representative Robert A. Brady, Democrat of Pennsylvan
F.C.C. rules further hampered the installation of the safety system.
Railroad officials said Thursday that installation of the safety system on tracks across the country was also hampered for more than a year by longstanding F.C.C. rules that required environmental and preservation reviews before the safety system’s antennas could be installed in historic areas or near tribal lands.
But officials at the F.C.C. said those reviews, which were relaxed at the behest of members of Congress in 2014, were not specifically responsible for Amtrak delays along the largely urban Northeast Corridor because new antennas were not required in that region.
And of course Amtrak's chronically cash strapped status made technological improvements more difficult.
The Federal Railroad Administration has calculated the cost of the system at $52,000 per mile of track. The railroads have put a total price tag of more than $9 billion on the system and said they have spent $5.2 billion so far. One of the biggest problems is that the system needs to be interoperable, meaning that communication is necessary between equipment used by different railroads, even if the railroads use different types of equipment.
The Federal Railroad Administration twice sought extra funding from Congress to finance the technology for Amtrak and other commuter rails. A first request for $825 million was ignored. A second request for extra funding was made this year for the 2016 budget as part of the Department of Transportation’s Grow America budget.
“Clearly, one of the hurdles that Amtrak has and the commuter rail industry has is that this is very expensive technology,” Mr. Szabo said. “It was never funded. The failure to invest in Amtrak’s capital program clearly has been a hindrance in more timely deployment. The way to make public rail a priority would be with public funding.”
On Capitol Hill, House Speaker John A. Boehner angrily rejected a suggestion that Republican funding decisions contributed to the accident.
“That’s a stupid question,” he snapped at a reporter. “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 authorize a lot of these programs.”
It's not a stupid question, Mr. Speaker, when eight Americans are unnecessarily killed because of silly bureaucracies and a Party that intends to let our country literally fall apart. Where is the funding to improve our nation's crumbling infrastructure?
Expect no answer or actions from the U.S. House Speaker. For he holds a high rank among the Party of "cowards and ideologues."
A Houston Chronicle editorial sharply nailed the culture of the craven cowards and ideologues in Washington, D.C. and Austin. "Blunt Assessment" Craven lawmakers are not only running the show in Washington but also in Austin.
Cowards and ideologues."
Those are the labels former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell used in a Wednesday radio interview to describe Capitol Hill lawmakers who refuse to make the necessary investments in this nation's infrastructure, investments that might have prevented the Amtrak train crash that killed eight people and injured more than 200 Tuesday in Philadelphia. He could just as easily have been talking about cowardly and ideologically compelled lawmakers in Austin.
The Pennsylvania Democrat was talking specifically about a technology called Positive Train Control, which allows railroads to use GPS to stop or slow trains in cases of driver emergencies, natural disasters, a hijacking or human error. Although Congress enacted a law in 2008 that requires the nation's busiest railroad operators to have PTC in place by December of this year, chronically cash-starved Amtrak has struggled to get the system installed according to the timetable lawmakers set. The section of track where this week's accident occurred doesn't have it.
Former Governor Rendell also noted that Congress hasn't increased the gas tax since 1993. Given more efficient cars today a lack of increase is adversely impacting funding for public transportation.
Rendell noted that Congress hasn't raised the gasoline tax since 1993; historically, the tax has paid for about a third of public-transportation projects around the country. (The Highway Trust Fund goes bankrupt this month.)
We've allowed our bridges and our ports to deteriorate, and our train system is a rickety, unreliable embarrassment compared to systems in Japan, Western Europe, South America and most of the developed world. According to a 2013 report from the American Society of Civil Engineers, it would take an estimated $3.6 trillion worth of repairs and retrofitting to bring the nation's railways, airports and roadways to where they ought to be.
The Chronicle's editorial board is right on the mark. If Governor Rendell thinks Washington is bad he should take a train to Austin. But he might want to reconsider train travel from Philadelphia to Austin, however. It might take a week given the reductions
to rail routes in this part of the country.
As Rendell's invective underscores, we've reached this sorry state of affairs because of craven lawmakers who won't stand up to anti-tax, anti-government ideologues who have no respect for the common good and a willful ignorance of a growing nation's need to invest in our common future. And if Rendell thinks Washington is bad, he should take a train to Austin.
If the train gets him to Texas before the legislative session ends in a couple of weeks, he would see anti-tax, anti-government ideologues running the store, particularly the state Senate. Tax relief is the rallying cry, and any investment in highways or public transportation is usually accomplished through bonds that put off payment for another day, or constitutional amendments or by finagling with funds from other programs. Elected officials with the vision and courage of a Jim Hogg or a John Connally or a tough-talking, tax-raising Republican named Bill Clements are as rare in Austin these days as the once-ubiquitous Texas horned toad.
Texas elected a tea party former state Senator as its Comptroller despite the fact that his Democratic opponent was far more qualified as a professional accountant. But the financial expert wore a D after his name. That said, no amount of voodoo math and free market conservative ideology can change the bottom line on the spreadsheet. The Tea Party dude is blowing the horn on the Legislature's lack of investment into the state's future.
No need to take our word for it. Listen to tea party favorite Glenn Hegar, a former state senator from Katy who seems to have seen the light since being elected state comptroller last fall. In a letter he sent to the state's top three GOP leaders a few days ago, he pointed out that lawmakers need to address the state's deteriorating infrastructure, including transportation and deferred maintenance; its dilapidated state office buildings; its underfunded retirement plans, among other needs that can properly be labeled investments in a bright Texas future.
"In addition to tax cuts, it is also important to consider the long-term challenges affecting the state's balance sheet and credit ratings," Hegar wrote.
Long-term, by the way, means beyond the next election.
Republican austerity kills in Texas, too. The former and current Governor's refusals to accept federally expanded Medicaid
is responsible for the early deaths of thousands of chronically ill and uninsured Texans. No amount of reasoning suggested by rational, well-informed, professional and upstanding individuals will make our cruel, cowardly, ideological Governor budge.
Texas is ranked last in nursing home care, too.
Yes indeed. Life is cheap in Texas if one should be poor, old and not white. It's cheap on the East Coast when a Republican controlled Congress willfully cash straps one of the nation's most busy rail corridors.
This Congress would prefer a KochTrak.