A Train Crashes, and Democrats Jump the Tracks

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Even in the context of our hyper-partisan politics, the press release that landed in my inbox Thursday morning was surprising in its ugliness. “Republican Cuts Kill… Again,” it screamed, announcing a new attack ad funded by a fledgling liberal group called The Agenda Project Action Fund.

The group’s previous spot—“Republican Cuts Kill”—blamed the Ebola crisis on Capitol Hill conservatives, earning the dreaded “four Pinocchio” designation from The Washington Post fact-checking team. The newest installment splices graphic images from Tuesday’s crash of Amtrak Train 188 with random budget figures and videos of Republican leaders calling for cuts in Amtrak’s subsidies and other federal programs.

Yes, you heard right. As Amtrak’s twisted railroad cars remained on their sides, bodies were still being recovered from the wreckage, and the critically injured were being prepped for surgery, self-styled “progressives” sought to score political points by essentially accusing fiscal conservatives of murder.

I love trains, and travel from Washington, D.C., to New York City on that same route several times a year. I watched the news accounts of the wreck unfold with horror, and anger. What I most wanted to know —along with millions of Americans—was why the train reached speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour as it approached a curve where the speed limit is half that fast.

Answers haven’t been easy to obtain. The train’s engineer, 32-year-old Brandon Bostian, apparently gave Philadelphia police detectives the brush-off and lawyered up instead. His attorney went on television to report that his client had concussion-induced amnesia and remembered nothing of the crash. That struck many, including Philadelphia’s mayor, as suspiciously convenient—but it’s a prudent response considering the criminal charges Bostian may face.

In Washington, Democrats weren’t interested in that. Even before the engineer’s identity was revealed, they affixed blame elsewhere. What was “utterly reckless,” they said, wasn’t driving a locomotive at preposterously high speeds. Instead, that description was applied to Republicans who’ve tried to apply a semblance of fiscal restraint to government spending.

“Year after year, Republicans have run for office almost exclusively on cutting spending,” asserted Agenda Project President Erica Payne. “Many of the cuts they demand are utterly reckless. … Cuts to the Amtrak budget prevented vital upgrades that could have prevented this tragedy. Republican budget cuts crippled a system that transports more than 30 million American citizens each year. Shame on them.”

This is not a new quarrel. Fiscally conservative Republicans and liberally spending Democrats have been arguing about Amtrak’s federal subsidies since the National Railroad Passenger Corporation—Amtrak’s official name—was formed in 1970. It’s called a corporation, and it’s structured as one, but its board members are presidential appointees, and most of the stock is owned by the federal government. The original idea was that it would receive an initial infusion of federal dollars and then be on its own. But it has never made money in its 44-year-history, despite the assurances of several early Amtrak presidents that it was on a glide path to profitability.  Finally, in 2002, Amtrak President David Gunn told a Senate subcommittee, “Amtrak will never be profitable.”

Running chronically in the red means asking Congress for money—a lot of money—more or less constantly. In its four-plus decades of operation, taxpayers have funneled some $45 billion in operational costs and capital improvements into the railroad. This is how things became partisan. For starters, the two political parties have philosophical differences over the size and scope of government. Also, numerous “red state” Republicans represent constituents who never ride the rails, and don’t understand why the government should spend $1 billion a year on trains. Urban Democrats, particularly in the Eastern Seaboard have the opposite perception.

Conservatives emphasize Amtrak’s failings as they perceive them: an expensive workforce, high administrative costs, union-induced featherbedding—you know, the old “waste, fraud, and abuse” argument. Democrats cite an alternate narrative, embraced by Amtrak’s brass, that goes like this: Reforms have been made, particularly regarding staffing; train travel is essential to ease travel gridlock in the East; other modes of transportation—namely highways and air travel—receive myriad government subsidies that dwarf Amtrak’s support by orders of magnitude.

In this long-running debate, I side with Amtrak. To me, the logic of what they say about highways and airline travel is unassailable. As for staffing issues, let’s note that of the 243 souls aboard Train 188 last Tuesday only five were crew members. That doesn’t sound like much featherbedding.

The funding issue that has been front-and-center this week is something called PTC, for “positive train control,” which automatically stops railroad locomotives from reaching the dangerous speeds that doomed Train 188 in Philadelphia. This is apparently what Democrats and some safety experts had in mind when they pointed fingers at congressional Republicans.

But the blame game appears to be misplaced. Congress had mandated PTC for all major stretches of passenger rail—including the curve where Train 188 derailed—by the end of 2015, and appropriated the money to help get it done. Amtrak, in turn, had installed the equipment on both the tracks and the trains, but was waiting for final approval on computerized radio frequencies before making it operational.

This late-in-the-week revelation underscored the irresponsible nature of the Democrats’ rhetoric. Their nastiness was in evidence on the House floor, where members of Congress echoed the Agenda Project attack ads. In other words, this was a Democratic Party talking point. It led to an angry rebuttal by Idaho Republican Mike Simpson.

“You have no idea—no idea—what caused this accident [so] don’t use this tragedy that way!” he admonished New York Democratic Rep. Steve Israel on the House floor. “It was beneath you.”

That’s a description that would fit much of our nation’s political discourse these days. But no one stands down in U.S. politics anymore, so when asked about the tone and content of their ad, Agenda Project spokesman Erik Altieri brushed away any suggestion they had jumped to the wrong conclusion.

“The ad,” he told me, “aims to start a national conversation about the worldview too often expressed by our friends on the right: that all spending cuts are good.”

That’s a conversation worth having. As a fan of passenger trains, I’m more sympathetic to the Democrats’ stance on Amtrak spending than the GOP position. But poisoning the well of political discourse doesn’t facilitate discussion. Its purpose is to demonize the opposition and win the next election cycle. It’s isn’t intended to help forge congressional consensus or solve a national problem—or make Americans safer.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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