The motto of the Democrats is that they can never let a good crisis (or tragedy) go to waste. Before the bodies were even cold from the recent Amtrak train crash, the Left Wing was claiming that it was obviously Republicans’ fault. They had “gutted” infrastructure spending and “slashed” Amtrak spending and if they hadn’t, we’d have had a positive control system that would have slowed the train down. My favorite rant is here in which Thom Hartman manages to blame Reagan, work in a Somalia comparison and say our system should be more like Spain’s (which had a far deadlier high-speed train crash just two years ago).
There’s only one problem with all this. It’s bollocks:
In the federal budget, Amtrak is within the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). The president estimated that fiscal 2015 outlays on the FRA would be $3.6 billion. Of that, $250 million is for Amtrak operating subsidies, $1.1 billion is for Amtrak capital grants, $1.8 billion is for high-speed rail grants, and the rest is for safety, research, and other rail activities.
The chart shows total FRA outlays from 1990 to 2015 in current dollars (not adjusting for inflation). Outlays have soared in recent years, partly due to rising high-speed rail spending. During 2009 to 2015, high-speed rail grants were $2 million, $16 million, $304 million, $513 million, $768 million, $1.1 billion, and $1.8 billion. But even aside from that spending, FRA outlays were up modestly over the past decade.
The problem with Amtrak is that many of its routes do not make economic sense. Because of politics, the company is forced to run services through low population regions that have few passengers. Passenger rail makes sense in the Northeast corridor, but few other places in America—at least within today’s costly and unionized rail structure. The distance from Boston to Washington, D.C. is less than 500 miles, yet Amtrak operates a 21,000-mile system through nearly all the states. Money that should be used on maintenance and upgrading in the Northeast is being used on services elsewhere in the country that lose hundreds of dollars per passenger.
In short, much of the money that could be going to maintain Amtrak is going to subsidize pointless light rail systems in cities that can’t use them. The Fed is also throwing money at high-speed sinkholes that will never happen.
The lack of a positive control system was instantly cited as the reason for the crash. The problem is that the line already has the system:
The Amtrak train that derailed in Philadelphia on Tuesday night was equipped with an automatic speed control system that officials say could have prevented the wreck, which killed eight passengers and injured hundreds. But the system, which was tantalizingly close to being operational, was delayed by budgetary shortfalls, technical hurdles and bureaucratic rules, officials said Thursday.
In 2008, Congress ordered the installation of what are known as positive train control systems, which can detect an out-of-control, speeding train and automatically slow it down. But because lawmakers failed to provide the railroads access to the wireless frequencies required to make the system work, Amtrak was forced to negotiate for airwaves owned by private companies that are often used in mobile broadband.
We’ve see this all the time from the supposedly fact-based Left Wing. Every time a tragedy happens — a shooting, a derailment, a hurricane — they can tell you what went wrong before the smoke has even cleared. They can tell you the motivations of people who messed up. And somehow, miraculously, it always comes down to Republican budget cuts.
Japan’s bullet train is often dragged out as the example of what we should be doing on rail. This ignores two things: 1) Japan is a lot smaller and its population more concentrated that the United States; 2) Japan’s rail system is privatized. As far as I can tell, they only get government subsidies to build new track or expand their capabilities. But their bullet trains operate at a profit.
This tragedy wasn’t a result of evil Republican budget cuts or Reaganism. We’re still not sure what happened. But as far as government policy goes, it was a result of a blundering agency and a government that is committed to building rail where it isn’t needed instead of maintaining it in the one place — the Northeast Corridor — where it makes sense.