Investigators are still determining the cause of the Amtrak crash that took eight lives and injured more than 200 riders of the northbound train in Philadelphia on May 12. But when asked whether Congress shared the blame because it underfunds the rail system, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) shot back: “Are you really going to ask such a stupid question? … Obviously, it’s not about funding.” House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) seemed to agree, when he told CNN: “I believe it’s shameless that we have colleagues trying to exploit a tragedy like this for funding.”
Boehner’s and Shuster’s point is that, as the train was going 106 mph when it hit the Frankford curve, it was speed — and, presumably, human error — that was the primary cause of the tragedy. That may be true. But it ignores the underlying question of whether the errors might have been avoided if more funding, training and better equipment were made available.
The fact is that Amtrak is underfunded and has been underfunded for years. That reality is felt with particular acuity in Amtrak’s busy and vital Northeast Corridor that affects us all. And that reality was pointed out quite clearly by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, last September as he voted with reservations for the reauthorization of Amtrak: “We cannot lose sight of the bigger picture, which is that we are still woefully underfunding Amtrak and passenger rail,” he said. “We spend more than $50 billion per year on highways and transit and over $15 billion on aviation, while Amtrak gets just $1.4 billion or less than 2 percent of federal transportation spending.”
We have a direct interest in this debate. Our region is a major piece of Amtrak’s north-south line that carries more than 750,000 commuters a day. Members of Congress and their staffs are regular passengers, as are tourists and business professionals. And while it is perhaps a random, unfortunate statistic, two of the eight who died in last week’s derailment were Jews — Rachel Jacobs, a 39-year-old executive with an education startup, and Justin Zemser, a 20-year-old midshipman at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. It only goes to show how much our Jewish community is tied into this vital artery.
We hope the exact cause of the crash will be determined soon. But inquiring into the link between the accident and the amount of funding made available for the crumbling public rail transport infrastructure in this country is not “stupid.” It was being asked long before the Amtrak train derailed. And it isn’t at all inappropriate to ask the question now.