As Train Crash Death Toll Reaches 7, GOP Votes to Cut Amtrak Budget by $250M & Delay Safety Upgrades

May 14, 2015


David Sirota

senior writer at the International Business Times. His recent piece is "Lawmakers Moved to Delay Rail Safety Rule Weeks Before Philadelphia Derailment."

Edward Wytkind

president of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department, which represents two million transportation workers, including the vast majority of Amtrak employees.

The death toll from Tuesday’s Amtrak train derailment in Philadelphia is now at seven and is expected to rise. About a dozen passengers are still missing. Authorities now say the train was traveling at about 106 miles per hour, more than double the speed limit, as it headed into a steep curve. National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said the accident would have been preventable if Amtrak had installed positive train control technology on that section of track. Just hours after the crash, the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee rejected a Democratic amendment to offer $825 million to speed up positive train control implementation. In addition, the committee voted to cut Amtrak’s budget by $250 million. We speak to Edward Wytkind, president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, which represents two million transportation workers, including the vast majority of Amtrak workers, and David Sirota, senior writer at the International Business Times. His recent piece is headlined "Lawmakers Moved to Delay Rail Safety Rule Weeks Before Philadelphia Derailment."


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The death toll from Tuesday’s Amtrak train derailment in Philadelphia is now at seven and is expected to rise. About a dozen passengers are still missing. Some 200 people were injured, several critically. Seven cars derailed, with sections of the train so mangled people had to be rescued with the aid of hydraulic tools. Authorities now say the train was traveling at about 106 miles per hour, more than double the speed limit, as it headed into a steep curve. National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said yesterday the accident was preventable.

ROBERT HALSTEAD: I think we’re looking probably at either a signal cause or a human factors cause, probably more likely the latter. So, that being the case, that is exactly the kind of issue that positive train control is designed to address. And as such, if it turns out to be one or both of those causes, positive train control would absolutely have prevented this accident.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The positive train control technology prevents trains from going faster than the speed limit. It was not installed at the site of Tuesday’s crash. Federal rules require the national rail network to have an operating positive train control system by the end of the year, but in March the Senate Commerce Committee voted to extend the deadline for implementing the new technology until at least 2020. Just hours after the crash, the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee rejected a Democratic amendment to offer $825 million to speed up positive train control implementation. In addition, the committee voted to cut Amtrak’s budget by $250 million.

AMY GOODMAN: Rail advocates have long called for the United States to greatly increase its spending on the nation’s rail infrastructure. One recent study estimated $21 billion is needed to repair and replace existing rail assets in the Northeast Corridor.

To talk more about the accident, we’re joined by two guests. In Washington, D.C., Edward Wytkind is with us, the president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, which represents two million transportation workers, including the vast majority of Amtrak workers. And in Denver, we’re joined by David Sirota, senior writer at the International Business Times. His recent piece is headlined "Lawmakers Moved to Delay Rail Safety Rule Weeks Before Philadelphia Derailment."

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! David, let’s start with you on that piece, on the issue of safety. Everything is being made of the fact that that train, as it was making that turn, coming out of the Philadelphia train station—it was around three miles out of Philadelphia headed to New York—that it was going at 106 miles an hour, and it looks like, seconds before, it was reduced to something like 102 miles an hour—the media very much laying the blame on the engineer. Can you talk about what could have prevented this from happening?

DAVID SIROTA: Well, there’s a technology called positive train control, which is a pretty, by our standards, low-tech technology. I mean, it’s logistically—it’s a logistical challenge to implement it, but it’s not anything—it’s not rocket science. In 2008, Congress passed a bill mandating that positive train control be implemented on the nation’s rails by the end of this year, 2015. That seems like a long time, but what happened a few weeks ago was, under pressure from the private rail industry, the Congress began moving forward a bill to delay the deadline for the implementation of positive train control. So a couple weeks ago—again, before this crash—senators, in a bipartisan fashion, on the Senate Science and Commerce Committee pushed through a bill to delay the rule. The NTSB has said that if positive train control had been implemented on this stretch of railway, which it wasn’t, that this crash would have been prevented.

And we looked at some of the campaign contributions. The chief sponsor of the bill, Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, has taken $290,000 from the railroad industry. You know, it’s not to say that if the rail—if the bill had passed, or didn’t pass, it would have solved everything, but it shows that Congress has not been really pushing the rail industry to get this implemented. And I should add that in 2011 the Obama administration, in a court proceeding, limited the scope of the amount of tracks that positive train control should apply to under that rule.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Edward Wytkind, could you give us a sense of what the general state of the transportation infrastructure here in the United States is like? The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the nation a D-plus on the state of the infrastructure in its latest report. Could you comment on that?

EDWARD WYTKIND: [inaudible] state it’s been as far back as you can look. This has become the lost generation, a generation that has stopped investing. It’s not because the people around America don’t want to invest. It’s because the people we elect are basically not getting the job done. And so, we have bridges falling down. We have railroads and transit systems that don’t have the money to implement technology, as we hear with this positive train control. We have ports that are no longer competitive with the rest of the world. And we have an aviation system that’s using, you know, 50-plus-year-old technology. And all that adds up to a tremendous challenge to keep our system not only efficient and technology-savvy, but to keep it safe. When you have life-saving technologies like positive train control, those things need to be implemented, and we shouldn’t be extending as far as the eye can see the timetable by which the industry has to implement it. And so, it’s a sad state. I’m not proud of it. We work very hard in Washington to make a different case, but we don’t have enough people elected in the Congress who understand the urgency of the problem or are willing to do anything about it.

AMY GOODMAN: Edward Wytkind, you represent the engineer. You’re the head of the union that represents many rail workers all over the country. Can you talk about, as head of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, what is what you feel needs to be done here, and his response, saying he doesn’t remember what happened? Of course, he hasn’t officially talked. We don’t really know what happened. He was taken to the hospital, and then he was released right away. His lawyer said he doesn’t remember what happened.

EDWARD WYTKIND: Well, look, unfortunately—and you alluded to this in your opening—there’s been a bit of a media frenzy focused exclusively on the engineer. And frankly, a lot of the comments that have been made—I agree with the NTSB—have been inflammatory and over the top. As far as I’m concerned, I’m not going to comment on anything specific regarding the engineer and what happened at the moment, but everybody is attempting to rush to judgment, and that’s the problem with the transportation industry. We focus so much on the human factors that we don’t look around us and see what else could happen in the industry, whether it’s rail or any other part of the transportation industry, to make things safer.

There’s all sorts of things that we’re not addressing. For example, we have chronic fatigue in the rail industry. And the rail industry won’t talk to you about that on camera, because they wouldn’t want to admit that their workers are all chronically fatigued, and they’re unwilling to agree to federal measures that would make the workforce better able to do its job and not be so tired every time they come to work. We have a railroad industry, for example, the freight railroads, that are attempting, in some cases, to go to one-person crews. We have pending regulations and a pending piece of legislation that would finally put a mandate that there be no fewer than two crew members on every train in America. Why is that? Because you need backup on trains to make sure that they’re operated safely, and those are the kind of redundancies that two crew members give one another in operations make it much safer. We just had a case in Canada where an entire town was leveled by a train, and that train was being operated by one crew member.

So, there are a lot of issues here, but unfortunately we all gravitate to "Let’s blame the worker, and let’s not look at other factors that contribute to accidents." Now, on this Philadelphia case, I’m not commenting on that case, because that should be the posture that everyone takes. We should not be trying to rush to judgment about what exactly happened at the moment. But, unfortunately, too many electeds are doing that, and I think it’s hurting the NTSB’s ability to do the right kind of investigation here.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, earlier, we heard Robert Halstead of IronWood Technologies talk about the positive train control system. I want to turn now to National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt, who said yesterday the accident was preventable.

ROBERT SUMWALT: We have called for positive train control for many, many years. It’s on our most wanted list. Congress has mandated that it be installed by the end of this year. So, we are very keen on positive train control. Based on what we know right now, we feel that had such a system been installed in this section of track, this accident would not have occurred.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Edward Wytkind, could you comment on what Robert Sumwalt said and what the prospects are for the implementation of this technology?

EDWARD WYTKIND: Well, first of all, I obviously defer to the experts, and the NTSB is obviously an expert on it. There’s no doubt that the accident would have been prevented by positive train control. And David mentioned this earlier: There is an aggressive lobbying effort around the country, being led by the freight railroads, to try to get relief from having to implement this technology. And, yes, you were correct when you opened the show, when appropriators refuse money to help some of the rail systems implement this technology—but as the NTSB has said, and as safety experts all around the country, as they’ve done TV interviews, have said, there is no doubt that accidents such as this horrific accident in Philadelphia would be prevented by positive train control. That’s why it’s there. It’s designed to stop trains from colliding with one another, and it’s designed to help the system adjust when a train’s not functioning the way it’s supposed to be. In this case, a train going too fast, positive train control would have fixed that problem. So it is absolutely avoidable. We just have to have the political will to do it in Washington, and we have to resist heavy-handed lobbying in Washington.

AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest spoke about whether the derailment of the Amtrak train in Philadelphia would give new momentum to the Obama administration’s push for more funding from Congress.

PRESS SECRETARY JOSH EARNEST: I will just say, as a general matter, that the administration strongly believes that these kinds of investments in infrastructure make good sense. And, you know, there’s no reason that infrastructure has to be a partisan issue.

AMY GOODMAN: So, David Sirota, let’s talk about this, a couple of issues. One is, for people who don’t know what positive train control is, PTC, this issue of the train communicating with the tracks, and, of course, if it was going too fast, the brakes would automatically be put on, but the Obama administration calling for far more moneygoing into public infrastructure. We’re talking about issues of an old system, the issue of climate change and the wearing down of the current system. Can you start off by talking about how the U.S. compares to the rest of the world when it comes to transportation systems? The Northeast Corridor, doesn’t it fund the rest of—a lot of the rest of Amtrak, because in fact it’s extremely profitable? And if the money is pulled out of it, as the Republicans are pushing to do in the House Appropriations Committee yesterday, if it’s privatized, it would be extremely valuable for some private corporation.

DAVID SIROTA: Absolutely. The stats are pretty stark here. The Economist, not exactly a super liberal publication, looked at some of this, found that the United States spends about 2.5 percent of its GDP on infrastructure. Europe, on average, spends about 5 percent of its gross domestic product on infrastructure. China is spending about 9 percent of its GDP on infrastructure. I think the—you know, obviously, in terms of the age of its economy, we should be comparing—the best comparison is probably us and Europe. And the fact that we’re spending a half, roughly half, of our—of the percentage of GDP that Europe is spending on its infrastructure tells you a lot. The World Economic Forum ranked us as number 23 in the world in terms of money and maintenance of our infrastructure and how much investment we put into infrastructure. So, yes, the answer is we are definitely trailing much of the rest of the industrialized world.

And part of that is a safety issue. Part of that is an economic issue in terms of not just maintaining infrastructure, but building new infrastructure to move into a 21st century economy. We’re relying on old infrastructure that we’re not really willing to put the—make the investments to, that experts say is necessary. I mean, experts say that we need to be putting in, at minimum, another $20 billion a year in investments on our infrastructure, and we haven’t done that. And this is not a partisan issue, as I’ve heard said, which is exactly right, that if you look at polling on this, I mean, Republicans, independents, Democrats in the country at large say they support more investment in infrastructure. It’s a political problem in Washington, where this kind of spending, because it’s not sexy, it’s not glamorous, is getting crowded out.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, the comments of the Republican congressmembers yesterday, hours after this train derailment that hurt hundreds of people, killed we don’t how many at this point, but at least seven, saying, "You don’t know what caused this, so we are not going to let it get in the way of cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from last year’s Amtrak budget." Edward Wytkind, the issue of climate change, I mean, mass transportation being a very important answer to that. I think I saw a figure yesterday out of Northeastern University, the U.S. spends $1.4 billion on trains. China spends something like $124 billion on trains. We’ve made a lot of the 106 mile-an-hour train, that the train was going at 106 miles an hour. That is very serious for a Northeast Corridor train making a turn. But, I mean, we were just broadcasting from Japan. The bullet train goes hundreds of miles an hour. What about all of this and this issue of how you see—you represent millions of workers—how you see it turning from a political issue to a popular issue, since, clearly, most people do support this kind of investment?

EDWARD WYTKIND: Well, thank you. The problem is that, you know, elections have consequences. So when you continue to elect people that don’t understand the importance of these kinds of issues, you get the results that you get. David mentioned some polling. Just on Amtrak, the vast, vast majority of Americans in all parties support more money for Amtrak. We have—for those that don’t know, the tunnels through which we travel in the Northeast Corridor—there are four of them—they’re a hundred years old. While we’re traveling through hundred-year-old tunnels, barely being able to crack 60, 70 miles per hour on much of the network, you have China and Japan preparing to put trains online that go over 300 miles an hour. It’s not because this is some sexy race. This is about the economy. This is about mobility. This is about who’s going to win the economic race in this century. And you’re not going to do it using a 1950s infrastructure. And so, it’s a serious problem.

You know, you got public transit systems, that are seeing record ridership, that are being forced to cut service and jobs. As I said earlier, our nation’s ports, about a third of them can no longer receive the largest vessels coming online, because we’re not investing in the modernization of those harbors and ports. So, it couldn’t be a more serious problem, and it’s about Washington. If you ask the American people what they want, they want more infrastructure investment, yet the people they send to Washington are not getting the job done, and so we end up with these ridiculous markups in the Appropriations Committee, where, on the day of the Philadelphia wreck, you’re seeing $200-plus million cut from Amtrak, which is completely reckless and irresponsible.

AMY GOODMAN: So, David Sirota, what happens from here? That meeting, a couple of hours—what, 12 hours after people were killed and hundreds injured, but that’s the House Appropriations Committee. That doesn’t mean it’s passed all of the House or all of the Senate. And as we wrap up, who are the forces that are pushing to, for example, delay the positive train controls, the ones that are automatic speed controls on the trains, when we talk about the private rail industry?

DAVID SIROTA: Right. Well, look, you have the private rail industry pushing that. The Association of American Railroads—by the way, which includes Amtrak—lobbied against—lobbied for that extension. So you’ve got that set of lobbies. And I also think this brings in larger ideological forces. You have Republicans who don’t want to raise public revenue through raising taxes. So, ultimately, this comes down to an ideological fight, which is: Are we going to raise the public revenue that experts say is necessary to maintain and build out our infrastructure, and are we going to have a discussion about taxes? Right now the Republican Party has said they’re not going to have a conversation about taxes. And so, I think there’s going to be a lot of media. There’s going to be a lot of attention about this derailment. There’s going to be questions about why we’re cutting Amtrak funding right after the derailment. But I think, ultimately, until there’s a discussion about the underlying debate, which is really about are we going to raise public revenue, then not much is going to change.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And could you talk about—David, you mentioned the level of investment in Europe and Asia in trains relative to the U.S. How does this affect rail safety, in terms of the numbers of accidents in Asia, in Europe, compared to here in the U.S.?

DAVID SIROTA: It’s a good question. I mean, overall, train remain—rail travel remains a very, very safe form of transportation. It’s getting safer, in terms of comparing previous years to now, even in the United States. But your point, I think, is a good one, which is, when you look and compare injury rates on American railways versus European railways, we have a much higher rate of injury per mile traveled than people in Europe and countries in Europe. And that’s not according to, again, a liberal source; that is the American Enterprise Institute, which is a conservative think tank. So, part of that unwillingness to spend money on maintenance is a safety issue. Now, of course, conservatives would say—and in that American Enterprise Institute report, the conservatives say—that it would be a safer system if it was privately run. But, you know, the opponents of that say that’s crazy, that this is really a failure of oversight, a failure of regulation, a failure of rule and a failure of investment. The fact is, though, even that debate hasn’t really been happening in a nation’s capital where we’re not willing to really invest even the basic resources to maintain the current system that we already have.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us. David Sirota, senior writer at the International Business Times, we’ll link to your piece, "Lawmakers Moved to Delay Rail Safety Rule Weeks Before Philadelphia Derailment." And thank you so much to Edward Wytkind, who is the president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO. The TTD represents 32 affiliated unions with two million transportation workers, both public and private. TTD represents the vast majority of Amtrak employees.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going to Seattle to talk about Arctic drilling to the north, and we’ll be talking about the Gulf and BP and the person who’s come closest to the BP oil spill. Stay with us.

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