The deadly derailment of an Amtrak train in Philadelphia has cast a harsh glare on the public-private rail service, and on the staggering figure it needs for repairs and capacity expansion on the northeast corridor (NEC) rail lines: $52 billion, doled out over at least the next 15 years.
That is Amtrak’s own estimate of how much it would take to get the hundreds of miles of track between Washington and Boston into what Amtrak calls a “state of good repair.” Amtrak presented this figure in its “Northeast Corridor Master Plan,” a report published in 2010.
Jim Mathews, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, agreed with the figure. But he told Al Jazeera that tracks, signals and trains not being designated in a “state of good repair” doesn't mean they are completely unsafe.
“State of good repair is not a minimum standard,” he said, but rather what the system needs to operate at optimal levels.
Mathews said the trains can currently travel safely — if they slow down when they cross parts of the track in need of maintenance.
The cause of the Philadelphia derailment is still unknown. Preliminary reports and online train tracking services suggest that the Northeast Regional 188 was traveling at 106 miles an hour — more than twice the speed limit for the curve where it crashed Tuesday night, killing at least seven passengers and injuring 200 more.
Whatever the cause, the crash has focused renewed attention on the issue of deteriorating U.S. railways and political reluctance to pay for long-neglected repairs. Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee voted Wednesday to slash Amtrak’s budget by $260 million, Politico reported. Democrats pointed to the accident as reason not to make the cuts.
The Republicans won, 20-31, in what Politico described as a party line vote. Amtrak has long been a punching bag for budget hawks. Its budget and board of directors require approval from congress, and multiple attempts to force it to profitability have ended in failure, according to the National Journal.
The funding reductions come as rail travel in the northeast has been undergoing a renaissance over the past decade and a half. Train trips between cities in the northeast corridor now account for 77 percent of all travel in the corridor, up from 37 percent in 2000, the National Journal reported. But the lack of needed repairs contributes to passengers enduring longer delays, fewer trains and other inconveniences.
“The track not being in a state of good repair means you can run seven trains a day and they can only go no faster than 50 miles per hour. They have to stop, or they have to go slow,” said Mathews. He said tracks in good repair could handle more trains, going far faster. “Certainly things might move more easily on the NEC with more investment,” he said.
Mathews added that Wednesday’s shutdown of Amtrak service between New York and Washington, stranding thousands on both ends, demonstrates the demand for reliable rail.
Amtrak itself has argued that these improvements have become more necessary as the population continues to grow along the NEC.
“The NEC consists of a mix of aging infrastructure, much of it built 80-150 years ago, that will require extensive repair for safe and efficient operations at current traffic levels,” Amtrak said in a 2012 report. “Significant investments in the existing NEC are required to bring it to a SOGR [state of good repair] and eliminate key bottlenecks that limit service frequency and negatively affect reliability and performance.”
Amtrak said in its 2010 report that it wants to see freight, commuter, high-speed and regional trains separated onto different tracks to improve service. The current practice of sharing tracks adds to delays and bottlenecks.
Amtrak did not return calls requesting comment Wednesday, and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) referred Al Jazeera to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).
Mike England, a spokesman from the FRA — the part of the Department of Transportation responsible for both passenger and freight transportation — said he could not immediately specify what safety or efficiency upgrades the NEC needs.
“Our safety regulations are available online for anybody to see,” he said.