Last month, following the derailment of a train in Philadelphia that killed eight people and injured hundreds, Amtrak ordered the installation of inward-facing cameras on locomotives that serve the Northeast Corridor. And on Tuesday, the GOP-controlled House passed a transportation spending bill that provides $9 million for inward-facing cameras in all cabs to record engineers on the job. The funding was added without objection from anyone in either party.
The cameras might have bipartisan support, but what they won’t do is prevent the next train accident. They are only useful when a crash has already happened. “Inward-facing cameras are very important for determining the reason for a crash afterwards,” Tho “Bella” Dinh-Zarr, the vice chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, told a Senate committee Wednesday. And in the meantime, for all the Republican protests that money for rail safety wasn’t an issue in the May derailment, the House’s spending bill denies funding that very well could avert the next disaster.
In all, the transportation funding measure cuts Amtrak’s budget by $242 million from the last fiscal year, and gives Obama $1.3 billion less than he sought for Amtrak grants. By keeping the Federal Railroad Administration’s safety and operations account flat, the bill is “denying resources for additional safety inspectors and other improvements,” according to the administration. "The requested funding for passenger rail service would help bring Amtrak's Northeast Corridor infrastructure and equipment into a state of good repair.”
David Price, the top Democrat on the House subcommittee that sets annual transportation funding, has also criticized the bill’s cuts: “As we learned from the Amtrak derailment last month in Philadelphia, these cuts can have clear, direct consequences for the safety of our transportation system. … [C]utting funding certainly isn’t making our transportation system safer. How many train derailments or bridge collapses will it take before the majority agrees that we must invest in our crumbling transportation infrastructure?”
Shoddy infrastructure isn’t specifically to blame for the May derailment, but shoddy infrastructure still might be the reason for the next derailment. As industry experts note, U.S. rail has one of the worst safety records in the world because of how little it spends on its rail networks.
When a reporter asked House Speaker John Boehner about Democratic protests over Amtrak funding cuts, he called it a “stupid question."
“Listen, they started this yesterday: ‘It’s all about funding.’ Well, obviously it’s not about funding—the train was going twice the speed limit,” Boehner said.
But it is about funding.
One concrete way for the government to help improve rail safety with spending would be to provide funding for Postive Train Control—which very well could have prevented the May derailment, as the technology can automatically slow or stop a train in the event of human error. Full implementation of PTC has been delayed for a host of reasons, including the complexity of the technology and syncing it with existing infrastructure. But money has also been an issue, especially for the cash-strapped public commuter agencies that are charged with funding and implementing the system. In their statements, both Obama and Price criticized the GOP for denying federal funding to implement Positive Train Control.
And Robert Lauby, the associate administrator for safety and chief safety officer for the Federal Railroad Administration, said “cost is certainly a factor” during Wednesday's Senate hearing. “We feel that the federal government has a role in funding this PTC improvement.”
If the funding levels in the House bill become law, that won't happen for at least another fiscal year. But at least we'll have the next crash on videotape.