At least six people have died and more than 140 people are injured in the wake of the deadliest Amtrak derailment in recent history. Amtrak Northeast Regional Train 188 rolled off the tracks while rounding a bend near Philadelphia, according to NBC Philadelphia, while carrying 238 passengers and five crew members. As officials sort through the wreckage and try to determine the cause of the tragedy, the Northeast Corridor — Amtrak’s busiest and most profitable route between Boston and Washington — will be shut down for an indeterminate amount of time.
Already the densest rail route in the U.S., aging Northeast Corridor trains are grappling with more riders than ever. The route has steadily broken ridership records every year for more than a decade — last year, 11.6 million people rode a Northeast Corridor train. But Amtrak has been starved of the funds required to keep up with this increased demand. The Northeast Corridor is shouldering a backlog of repairs expected to require $4.3 billion in fiscal year 2019, while federal funding is expected to dwindle to $872 million.
House Republicans will debate another massive cut to Amtrak on Wednesday. But even if they keep Amtrak funding levels where they are, Congress is guaranteeing more dysfunction and more breakdowns in the system as maintenance costs rise. Those breakdowns can range from creating minor inconveniences, like being 20 minutes late to work, to potential catastrophes, like Tuesday’s derailment.
It’s not yet clear what caused Train 188 to go off the rails, but it is the most recent in a series of train derailments on the route. Metro-North, a commuter line shares tracks with Amtrak, has suffered several serious derailments over the past two years. Besides posing serious dangers to riders, these derailments set off a ripple effect that paralyzes the entire system, causing untold setbacks for riders and businesses. Northeast Corridor trains carry “a workforce that contributes $50 billion per year to the United States gross domestic product,” according to the Northeast Corridor Commission.
Meanwhile, the agency is simply unable to keep up with daily wear-and-tear along with the backlog of repairs on bridges and tunnels that date back to the turn of the 20th century, “functionally obsolete” rail interlockings, and trains that rely on 1930s-era components.
In fact, Congress’ refusal to acknowledge Amtrak’s predicament has made American trains so inefficient that it’s actually having a dampening effect on ridership growth. Even though demand for train travel has risen steadily, growth has slowed recently as breakdowns and delays make trains less reliable. “The slower growth in ridership than in recent years is due, in part, to a harsh winter season and on-time performance issues associated with freight train delays and infrastructure in need of replacement,” noted Amtrak’s report from fiscal year 2014.
Congress holds Amtrak to a unique standard by demanding the agency turn a profit per passenger; highways and airports receive about 45 times the subsidies that Amtrak does, according to the National Journal’s Simon Van Zuylen-Wood. Republicans have persistently called for the privatization of the Northeast Corridor, which would gut Amtrak’s primary source of revenue and effectively doom the agency. While that proposal has never gained much traction outside conservative circles, lawmakers have proposed massive cuts to Amtrak’s budget virtually every chance they get.
Congress is currently battling over a looming deadline for the major federal transportation fund, which will run out of money by the end of May. The Obama administration has pushed a $478 billion transportation funding bill that would still be a drop in the bucket for the massive infrastructure needs facing the country, but many Republican lawmakers have so far seemed unwilling to consider anything more ambitious than a year-long extension. It remains to be seen if Tuesday’s tragic derailment will provide a jolt of reality in the current debate.
The post has been updated to note that Amtrak and Metro-North share tracks, but Amtrak does not own the New York to New Haven tracks.