Amtrak And Our Infrastructure Crisis

Let's refocus on investing in our nation.

In The Wake Of The Amtrak Tragedy, Let’s Refocus On Investing In Our Nation

Eight people have died and 200 were injured when an Amtrak train traveling more than 100 miles per hour in a 50 MPH zone careened off the tracks near Philadelphia on Monday night. Former Congressman and Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Patrick Murphy (D-PA), who was a passenger on the train, described the accident as “so fast, it was surreal. But there was a few moments where I thought I was going to die and that was one of them.” While federal officials have confirmed the train was going far too fast around a turn, the cause of the accident is still under investigation.

Regardless of the possible causes, tragedies like this often serve as a wake-up call for the public. And when it comes to our country’s funding for Amtrak and for transportation infrastructure more broadly, we need one. Badly.

Amtrak is vastly overburdened. More travelers than ever are taking trains, and yet federal funding continues to decrease. In the Northeast Corridor, already the densest rail route in the United States and responsible for 30 percent of the entire country’s GDP, 11.6 million people ride the Amtrak each year and yet the route has $4.3 billion in backlogged repairs (millions more riders use Amtrak-owned infrastructure in the region on commuter rails). Congressional leaders are not addressing the need; in fact, hours after the crash, a House panel voted to cut Amtrak’s budget by a fifth. Here’s a chart from ThinkProgress to give you a better idea:

In addition, technology exists today that may have prevented the fatal crash. Positive train control (PTC) is a technology that allows railroads to use GPS to slow or stop trains in cases from hijacking to human error. The president of Amtrak called PTC “the most important rail safety advancement of our time,” but parts of the funding-starved Northeast Corridor including where the crash took place still lack the system.

These are serious problems in their own right, but our transportation infrastructure funding shortage goes beyond the issues with Amtrak alone. In the 1950s, we spent nearly 5 percent of GDP on transport and water infrastructure projects. Now, while Europe remains at that level and China and other Asian countries are spending close to twice that, U.S. infrastructure spending has plummeted. We are, simply put, falling behind: Amtrak’s ‘high-speed’ Acela train travels an average of 84 mph; a Japanese bullet train topped out last month at 375 mph.

But it’s not just about speed. As we are reminded after each accident, it’s about saving lives. The United States needs to make the necessary investments to remain the world’s greatest superpower. Instead, we have a Republican Congress hell-bent on slashing infrastructure investment and doubling down on cutting Amtrak’s budget.

Meanwhile, a freight train derailed today outside Pittsburgh (there were no injuries). There were 1,241 derailments across the U.S. in 2014.

BOTTOM LINE: Regardless of who or what is at fault in this case, the tragic Amtrak accident that has killed eight people and hurt hundreds more must be a wake-up call to address our nation’s infrastructure crisis. Smart, pro-growth investment in infrastructure is a critical step America must take to prepare for the 21st century, and conservatives should stop standing in the way.

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