TRANSIT: Amtrak gets support in Senate while House probes positive train control progress

The House of Representatives will assess federal mandate progress, while funding supporters persist

June 22, 2015

A measure sponsored by Sens. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) has called for spending approximately $1.65 billion annually over the next four years toward Amtrak, as well as $570 million per year on rail grants, totaling nearly $9 billion when all is said and done. This proposal comes on the heels of the deadly derailment of train 188 that occurred last month along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.

Wicker and Booker said it was important to give Amtrak funding to make safety improvements, especially on its heavily traveled tracks in the Northeast Corridor. “The nation’s passenger rail system serves as an integral part of our overall transportation structure and our economy,” Wicker said in a statement. “The tragic accident in Pennsylvania last month was a heartbreaking reminder that the system is far from perfect. This bipartisan measure would make robust improvements to safety programs, improve existing infrastructure, and empower state and local officials. The bill also leverages private sector investment, cuts red tape, and increases transparency to make our critical infrastructure dollars go further.”

Booker agreed, saying lawmakers need to invest in Amtrak not only because of safety but to help the flow of U.S. business. “To help the United States compete globally, we must invest in a safe and reliable passenger rail system that Americans can depend on. But too often our rail system falls short due to a lack of adequate infrastructure investment,” he said. “Our bipartisan bill takes important steps to improve rail safety in the wake of last month’s tragic derailment, modernize our aging passenger rail network, and maximize investments in infrastructure through improved financing and grant programs.”

The lower chamber had previously passed a $7.8 billion bill for Amtrak that was known as the Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act. The Senate's version of the measure would give Amtrak a slight increase from the present level of funding. Rail supporters have indicated they greatly prefer the Senate’s version of the Amtrak funding measure because it does not cut the federal government's spending on the company.

This initiative has been proposed directly on the heels of a recent announcement by House lawmakers that they will begin to probe the progress of railroads—Amtrak in particular—in implementing federally required positive train control systems.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will hold a hearing on June 24, titled “The State of Positive Train Control Implementation in the United States.” The hearing follows federal regulators’ warning that most of the nation’s railways will fail to meet the December deadline for implementing an automated system.

Railroads currently have until Dec. 31 to install the positive train control system, which regulates the speed and track movements of trains, under a law passed in the aftermath of a 2008 commuter rail crash in California. Prior to last month’s Amtrak crash near Philadelphia, lawmakers had sought to push back the deadline to 2020 at the behest of railroad companies. That motion is now all but quashed, much to the relief and applause of safety organizations.