Sunday, May 17, 2015

Crash – A Proverbially Reactive Congress

Even without gridlock, our Congress prevents almost nothing bad and seldom solves any currently relevant problem. But when it does move ever-so-slightly, it often goes through a “let’s find a political opponent to blame, even though our dealing with this earlier could have prevented it” moment. Like cutting the Department of State’s security budget and then lambasting a rising presidential candidate for not preventing Benghazi.
Or… Beholden to the big check-writers under the Citizens United decision, knowing that environmental regulations will slam King Coal and the Frackers hard, sometimes they prefer to rely on God-answers, providing a gut-but-not-remotely-scientifically-accurate explanation (fires, floods, drought and hurricanes are purely acts of nature for which man has no responsibility). Bad for business often justifies some pretty horrific practices. But almost always, big movements come from big headlines.
Massive flooding from a failed levee, a bridge collapse on an Interstate… or a great big train wreck with lots of fatalities. “In 2008, the Democrat-controlled Congress and the Bush White House were at odds over an Amtrak bill. Democrats wanted to double Amtrak’s budget. The Bush administration wanted to zero it out. A reauthorization bill had languished for years and funding was static.
“Then in September, a commuter passenger rail train collided with a freight train in Los Angeles killing 25 people and injuring dozens. Suddenly, Congress did what it does best: React… Instantly, passing a bill addressing rail safety needs became a priority. With the added urgency, Congress attached the stalled Amtrak reauthorization bill to a separate rail safety measure and it cleared Congress within weeks. President George W. Bush, who had once threatened to veto the Amtrak bill, signed it with little fanfare… That bill expired in 2013, and Congress still needs to pass a new one.” Washington Post, May 12th.
Republican policy has wanted the federal government out of the railroad business. They want passenger-focused Amtrak spun-off into a completely private structure with no government ownership. So Amtrak has become a hot potato. Railroads, once private in the United States, fell on hard times, as cars and trucks sucked both passengers and freight away from our rail system. And while the needs of World War II provided rail transportation a brief respite, the decline of our private rail system resumed shortly after that war.
“In 1946, there remained 45 percent fewer passenger trains than in 1929, and the decline quickened despite railroad optimism. Passengers disappeared and so did trains. Few trains generated profits; most produced losses. Broad-based passenger rail deficits appeared as early as 1948 and by the mid-1950s railroads claimed aggregate annual losses on passenger services of more than $700 million (almost $5 billion in 2005 dollars when adjusted for inflation)… By 1965, only 10,000 rail passenger cars were in operation, 85 percent fewer than in 1929. Passenger service was provided on only 75,000 miles (120,000 km) of track, a stark decline. The 1960s also saw the end of railway post office revenues, which had helped some of the remaining trains break even.” Wikipedia.
After a serious of railroad bankruptcies, with some transportation horribles looming, “In 1970, Congress passed, and President Richard Nixon signed into law, the Rail Passenger Service Act. Proponents of the bill, led by the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP), sought government funding to assure the continuation of passenger trains. They conceived the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (NRPC), a hybrid public-private entity that would receive taxpayer funding and assume operation of intercity passenger trains. The original working brand name for NRPC was Railpax, but shortly before the company started operating it was changed to Amtrak.” Wikipeda. 
Amtrak cut passenger service where it was no longer economically justified, picked up where “deferred maintenance” left substandard equipment and facilities, and generally improved rail service… with federal subsidies along the way. They worked with rail companies that remained private, and the system evolved into the present day. But a hostile Congress has pushed back against spending money to repair the Amtrak system.
A little quiver along the way, which never made it through the full Congress, may ramp-up now that eight people were killed and over 200 injured on a massive Amtrak passenger train derailment in the Philadelphia area on May 12th. It was the same stretch of tracks where, 71 years ago (September 6, 1943), 79 other people were killed, 117 injured, as passengers on a speeding train.
For Amtrak, available resources, not enough to upgrade the full system, were diverted to fill the void:  “Federal regulators on [May 16th] ordered Amtrak to expand use of a speed-control system long in effect for southbound trains near the crash site to northbound trains in the same area. The agency also ordered the company to examine all curves along the Northeast Corridor and determine if more can be done to improve safety, and to increase speed limit signs along the route.
“Railroad Administration spokesman Kevin Thompson said [on May 17th] the automatic train control system is now fully operational on the northbound tracks. Trains going through that section of track will be governed by the system, which alerts engineers to slow down when their trains go too fast and automatically applies the brakes if the train continues to speed.”, May 17th.
Now Congress gets to address the bigger funding issues, a matter started but not yet finished. The House, in a rare show of bipartisanship, passed a reauthorization to fund bill in March. It didn’t include a big funding boost like in 2008, but there is one notable provision: “The profitable Northeast Corridor could reinvest in its own battered infrastructure rather than have to subsidize other routes around the country that don’t make money.
“Amtrak has long been a controversial issue on Capitol Hill, with many Republicans wanting the federal government out of the railroad business and pushing to privatize it. Then-GOP presidential candidate John McCain voted against the aforementioned Amtrak bill in 2008. Mitt Romney targeted it as a place to cut in 2012. Meanwhile many Democrats point overseas to Japan and Germany and argue the United States has fallen behind by not investing in rail.” The Post.
We will now see if Congress follows its usual pattern of reactive legislation. Maybe they’ll call it human error and see no reason to act because the train was traveling at twice the authorized speed… Forget that we live in a technologically-advanced world where even that can be prevented (and will, at least on that route with first-rate equipment. Oh well…
I’m Peter Dekom, and that the government doesn’t remotely do the jobs that we elected them for, that Congress cannot seem to make a meaningful decision, well, we as the voting public are simply letting them get away with this level of reactive legislating!

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