Congress expert Norman Ornstein on what the debate over the debt limit says about dysfunction in Congress, and his ideas for how to fix it.
Guest Host: Frank Sesno
On Tuesday night, Amtrak train number 188 derailed outside of Philadelphia, leaving seven people dead and hundreds injured. The train entered a curve at more than 100 miles per hour — twice the posted speed limit — and investigators are now working to find out why. Some experts stress that human error should only be part of the conversation; aging infrastructure has long been a concern for financially-troubled Amtrak, and many are wondering if this tragedy could re-energize efforts to improve U.S. rail safety and put more resources behind U.S. infrastructure projects elsewhere. We explore the deadly Amtrak derailment and its aftermath.
- Ed Hamberger President & CEO, Association of American Railroads
- Andy Harris Congressman Andy Harris, Republican representing Maryland's 1st District
- Larry Mann Rail safety attorney; principal draftsman of the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970
- Fawn Johnson Correspondent, National Journal
- Ed Rendell Co-chair, Building America’s Future; former governor of Pennsylvania
- Jim Mathews President & CEO, National Association of Railroad Passengers
Graphic: How Safe Are America's Passenger Trains?
All seven cars of the passenger train traveling from Washington to New York City derailed, and some even tipped over, injuring around 200 in the chaos.
MR. FRANK SESNOAnd thanks for joining us. I'm Frank Sesno, creator of Planet Forward, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University and I'm sitting in for Diane Rehm today. She'll be back next week. Tuesday's Amtrak tragedy claimed seven lives and left hundreds injured. It sparked new calls for increasing financial support for passenger rail to improve safety, to look after a crushingly old infrastructure.
MR. FRANK SESNOBut yesterday, just hours after the crash, the House appropriations committee rejected a funding increase for Amtrak, renewing a partisan debate. Joining me in the studio to discuss that and the state of the current investigation into the Amtrak accident is Fawn Johnson, correspondent for "National Journal," Jim Mathews, president and CEO of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, and Ed Hamberger, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads.
MR. FRANK SESNOOn the line from Bethesda, Maryland, is Larry Mann. He's a rail safety attorney and principle draftsman of the federal railroad safety act of 1970. Later in the program, we'll be joined by Ed Rendell, he's the former governor of Pennsylvania, mayor of Philadelphia and co-chair of Building America's Future. So Fawn Johnson, let me start with you. Bring us up to speed on where we are with this investigation.
MS. FAWN JOHNSONWell, Larry -- I mean, one of the things that I have been cautioned about and I would caution all of the people who are watching the news that it's probably the most important to just take the fact that the National Transportation Safety Board gives and let other people chase the other things that come out because we really don't know exactly what happened.
MS. FAWN JOHNSONBut what we do know is that the train derailed along a curve that's just outside of station just north of Philadelphia. It's called the Frankfurt Junction. And that, according to the NTSB, the train was going well over 100 miles an hour and it should be taking this curve at around 50 miles per hour, which means that it's almost no way that it would've been able to stay on the track at that speed.
MS. FAWN JOHNSONWe also know that the engineer did hit the emergency break right before he got to the curve, but it was, obviously, not soon enough. And the rest is up to speculation. I mean, we haven't yet heard what the status of the engineer is or what the state of the actual rail is. That is one of the things that they're going to be looking at.
SESNOWell, the engineer's lawyer, though, has spoken out, said that his client suffered a concussion in the accident, does not remember applying the brake, I believe, is what I heard him say so there's a lot of unknown here right now.
JOHNSONRight. Yeah, and the thing is, the real question -- and this is something that I was -- when I was talking to members of Congress who deal with Amtrak yesterday on the Hill, the question is, how much of this involves human error and how much of it is an infrastructure related problem. We actually don't know the answer to that, but I almost think if you're gonna talk about how to prevent it, that you need to talk about both of those things anyway.
JOHNSONSo in some ways, you know, how much human error and how much infrastructure issues are at stake are beside the point when it comes to the policy conversation.
SESNOEd Hamberger, speaking on behalf of the railroads here, when something like this happens, how long does it take in an investigation? They've got the black box. How long is it going to take for us to figure out and to learn what's actually happened and what caused this?
MR. ED HAMBERGERWell, I think what NTSB board Zumwalt said last evening is that they anticipate being on the scene for about a week. Excuse me. And what they are trying to do is deal with the evidence that will disappear if they don't deal with it right away. But on some of these accidents it's as much as a year before the NTSB issues its final formal report.
SESNOAnd the rails are still shut between Washington and New York, really.
HAMBERGERWell, at least between Philadelphia...
SESNOPhiladelphia and New York.
HAMBERGERThat's my understanding.
SESNOYes. And disrupted elsewhere. How long will it take before service is restored?
HAMBERGERWell, I saw that they were clearing the track last evening. I believe Mr. Zumwalt said that they'd return the track to Amtrak so I would hope in the next day or so that service would be back up.
SESNOLarry Mann, you're an expert. You've been watching this industry very closely. You helped define it with the work that you did decades ago. What was your reaction to this terrible accident?
MR. LARRY MANNMy bottom line expression is it was totally preventable.
MANNHad the technical devices been put in place, such as positive train control been in affect on the Amtrak lines, this accident would never have occurred. And the problem is Amtrak is, as you know, and everyone else who deals with Amtrak knows, it's a political football in Congress. Yesterday, in the subcommittee, a proposal was made by Amtrak to provide funding for the positive train control process and it was voted down.
MANNAnd it was voted down on party lines. That’s so outrageous that this is politicized. If we're dealing with safety, safety should not be involved in politics.
SESNOAll right. Well, I want to come back to what happened in Congress and come back to the funding and the infrastructure in a minute, but staying on this particular incident and accident, Jim Mathews, let me bring you in because you speak on behalf and you work on behalf of the passengers. Your response to what took place here and what are you looking for in this investigation.
MR. JIM MATHEWSWell, certainly, as passengers and to represent the passengers, we've been pushing for a long, long time for full implementation of positive train control. We think it's long past time. And it's difficult in the current funding environment to make that happen. I mean, transportation providers all across the U.S. have been struggling to find enough money to implement positive train control and just efficiently protect great causes.
SESNOOkay. But are you -- I'm asking about the investigation in this accident. Are you saying that this accident was not caused by human error or that that's not what you're looking for? Because I understand about positive train control and the investment there, but in terms of what happened here.
MATHEWSWell, what we're saying is very similar to what Larry's saying. You know, this was totally preventable and this is a perfect example of what happens when you chronically under-invest in safety.
SESNOWhat has Amtrak's safety record been to date overall?
MATHEWSIt's actually been quite good. Just like air travel, it's actually very, very safe and comparable to air travel. As a matter of fact, in the past eight years, it has become 54 percent safer to travel the trains than it was in (word?)
SESNOSafety measured how?
MATHEWSSafety measured in incidents per million passenger miles.
SESNOAnd incidents being what?
MATHEWSIncidents being anything that causes harm, physical harm, as opposed to just kind of a garden variety derailment that no one would really notice or pay attention to.
SESNOOkay. Let me come back to Larry Mann just one moment. Again, having watched the industry so closely for so long, how do you see safety standards, regulations overseen in this process?
MANNWell, that's a very interesting question because the general accountability office last year issued a report and concluded that the federal railroad administration is able to inspect only 1 percent of the railroad operations annually.
MANN1 percent. So that means that if you're a railroad, you have very little incentive to comply with the regulations, of course...
HAMBERGERThat is, of course, just totally inaccurate, Larry, and you know it.
SESNOAll right. Well, let me let him finish and I'll come to you, Ed Hamberger.
MANN...railroad, of course, does not want to create accidents. They realize that safety is important, but the federal railroad administration just doesn't have the capability to adequately enforce.
SESNOOkay. Let me come to Ed Hamberger who disagrees, from the Association of American Railroads.
HAMBERGERI disagree with Larry's assertion that there is no incentive. There is every incentive for a railroad, whether it be a passenger railroad or a freight railroad to operate safely. 2014, safest year on record for freight railroads across the board. The fact that there are not enough inspectors doesn't mean that the railroads are not living up to those regulations and in many cases going beyond those regulations and what we do is audited by the FRA.
SESNOLarry Mann, your response to that.
MANNWell, I respect Mr. Hamberger's views, but Congress, for a number of years, was heavily criticizing the federal railroad administration for not adequately inspecting and in supervising its regulations. That's a fact. That cannot be denied by Mr. Hamberger. Only 1 percent of the industry is inspected annually.
SESNOAnd Mr. Hamberger, do you agree with that? I mean, is that right? 1 percent?
HAMBERGERI don't know what percent the FRA inspects. I know that we inspect 100 percent.
SESNOWell, let me ask you about one thing I do know where the industry is in and, Fawn Johnson, let me bring you into this as well. Ed Hamberger, this positive train control, which he have heard from Jim Mathews and others, could have prevented this. It's supposed to be installed by 2015. The industry says, cost too much. Not so fast.
SESNOWe need till 2020. No?
HAMBERGERNo, we're not saying it costs too much at all. What we're saying is...
SESNONo, no, no. I'm not saying you're saying...
HAMBERGER...it is a technological challenge that even the FRA, when it was required in 2008, said to Congress, the appropriate deadline is 2018. 2015 was what was written into the legislation. We have spent $6 billion by the end of this year. We have hired thousands of people. We have already equipped about 50 percent of the 22,000 locomotives so we are not saying that it is a matter of money for the freight railroads.
HAMBERGERIt's a matter of technology, proving that technology and then implementing it.
SESNOFawn Johnson, this was a centerpiece in this vote yesterday not to grant Amtrak another 200 plus million dollars to do this.
JOHNSONRight. And since I wasn't at that hearing, I'm not entirely sure what the logic was behind the members who voted against the extra money. But I will tell you that it has been -- both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill have actually voted to extend the deadline for positive train control. They have essentially taken the railroad and some of the technological development challenges to heart and said it's gonna take a little more time.
SESNOJim Mathews, is this gonna -- very briefly, is this gonna change that dynamic?
MATHEWSI think it might. I think it might. I mean, if you look at the degree to which Amtrak has already been able to put positive train control in place, you know, there's still 1200 miles, I believe it is, that's still left to do and that curve was one of them.
SESNOAnd it's very complicated and technological work. We'll be taking your calls. We'll also be joined by former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell after this very brief break.
SESNOAnd welcome back to the Diane Rehm Show. I'm Frank Sesno, sitting in for Diane today, talking today about this terrible Amtrak crash in Philadelphia, this derailment that cost seven people at least seven lives and injured 200-and-some others. We are now joined in the conversation by Ed Rendell, former governor of Pennsylvania, former mayor Philadelphia. He's in the NPR studios in New York. He's also co-chair of Building America's Future, which looks very specifically at issues of infrastructure. Governor Rendell, thanks for joining us.
GOVERNOR ED RENDELLMy pleasure, Frank.
SESNOWhat is your response to this conversation that we've been having here this morning, I know you've been listening, we - not necessarily exclusively the investigation itself, but this broader question of what this says about our rail system and our infrastructure in this country?
RENDELLWell, I think it does say something more significant, more broader than even the results of the investigation of this horrible, horrible tragedy, and the more you learn about the victims, the seven people that died, the more tragic it becomes. But it points out that we have, because we're afraid to raise revenue, we're afraid to invest in our future, we've got ideologues, we've got cowards in the Congress who won't put up a revenue vote.
RENDELLSenator Corker, a good conservative, couldn't get one Republican co-sponsor of a bill that he put in with Senator Murphy, a Democrat, to raise the gas tax 10 cents a gallon and to index it to the construction inflation index, couldn't get a co-sponsor. It's pathetic. Could we have - should we have positive train control earlier? Yes, we should have. But Amtrak keeps getting cut, it keeps getting reduced, and even in the face of this tragedy, a common sense approach would've been to at least restore the funding for this year so positive train control can become a reality everywhere around the country. They didn't do it by a strict party line. They didn't do it.
RENDELLAnd the excuse was, well, we have spending caps. But they blew by those spending caps for defense so they can blow by them for infrastructure that's important for public safety, important for economic development, important for job creation...
SESNOAll right, let me...
RENDELLImportant for the quality of our lives.
SESNOGovernor Rendell, let me ask you this question, and I'm going to bring in, in a moment, Congressman Andy Harris, who is a Republican, who voted against this appropriations measure yesterday. But before I do, there are those who say, with some justification - and let me point out, by the way, that I was on Amtrak the day before this accident took place, going up to New York, getting jostled and bounced around as you do when you take one of these trains because the tracks are not in great shape, not going at the speeds that we should be going if we had a proper high-speed rail system in this country, as virtually every other industrialized country has.
SESNOIt is an embarrassment, okay. And then when something like this happens, it is a tragic reminder, whether it's human error or whatever, of where we are in our train travel and what that says about our larger infrastructure. But there are those in the Congress, Governor Rendell, as you well know, who says wait a minute, Amtrak is poorly run, poorly managed, and the investments and the billions that we've put in in the past have been poorly spent. What do you say to taxpayers and to that?
RENDELLWell, first of all, I'm not sure that's true, but if it is true, the congressional oversight has been lacking, severely lacking. And you mandate something like positive train control, they finally did mandate that this year, you mandate things that are crucial and important, and then you check to make sure they're being done. So the Congress isn't doing its job.
RENDELLBut, you know, you hear every excuse under the sun for not funding infrastructure properly. Frank, I'm sure you know the last time we raised the gas tax in America, the federal gas tax, was 1993. The average car cost $10,200. The average car costs $31,000 today. Eggs cost 87 cents back then. They cost $2 today. Everything's gone up. Everything's gone up. The gas tax is the only important thing that hasn't even kept pace with development.
RENDELLThe American Society of Civil Engineers says our infrastructure is a D+, and you're right, the problem here is more than just whether there was driver error or more than even positive train control. The problem is we've got curving track bed all over, from Boston to Washington. Acela...
SESNOAll right, let me bring in -- let me bring in Congressman...
RENDELLWell, there's an important point. The Acela is designed to go 150 miles an hour. It can only average, from Boston to Washington, 80 miles an hour because of all the curved track. Sixty years ago, we had a train that averaged 70 miles an hour.
SESNOIt's not exactly stunning progress. So Congressman Andy Harris is now joining us, he's a Republican congressman from Maryland, serves on the House Committee on Appropriations. Congressman Harris, take this on for just a minute. Why did this vote go down the way it did yesterday? Why is the Congress so reluctant to put further investment into Amtrak to bring America's rail system up to the quality level that a superpower should expect?
CONGRESSMAN ANDY HARRISWell, I'm not sure which vote you're talking about because, you know, we have to get off the talking points. You know, subsidies for Amtrak to subsidize their fares is very different from increasing the funding for the safety fund, from which the positive train control funds would've come. So first you have to ask, well, which are you talking about. Are you talking about subsidizing Amtrak passenger fares, or are you talking about installing the PTCs on passenger rail throughout the country?
SESNOSo what's the status of PTC, the positive train control, which we've now heard could've potentially avoided, averted this accident?
HARRISWell, as you probably know, Congress has mandated the positive train control be on all the passenger rail by - all major passenger rail in the country by December 31 of this year, and it's technological issues that are holding it up. So there is fund. They are systematically going through the rail system, as you know. There's a lot of rail on the Amtrak car between Washington and Boston that has PTC. The rest will get it, but there are technology issues with installing it.
HARRISAnd again, you know, all the money in the world don't - wouldn't change the laws of physics. The fact of the matter is we have to get down to why this engineer was going twice the speed he was supposed to be going on that set of track.
SESNOI think that's a very important point, and Ed Hamberger, I'd come back to you on this one. If this was in fact the human error, are we getting distracted by this other conversation?
HAMBERGERWell, I think that Fawn said it right in her opening comment, that it is clearly some human error here, but that is what the technology is there to prevent. And, you know, I mentioned earlier that the freight railroads have spent almost $6 billion. There is a report out from the American Public Transit Association, which details the challenges the commuter rails are having, that the passenger rails are having, in finding the revenue to install...
SESNOLet me just mention to our listeners that we'd like you to join the conversation. You can do that by calling us at 800-433-8850, or send us an email at email@example.com. Join us on Facebook or Twitter. Congressman Harris, let me come back to you. What do you expect in the aftermath of this terrible accident, however the investigation goes, will be the pressures on the Congress and perhaps the result with these additional subsidies, investments, dollars, whatever you want to call them, going to Amtrak?
HARRISWell, it's not - again, you say Amtrak. The problem is not Amtrak, it's the positive train controls on all passenger rail, whether it's commuter rail, the major passenger rail, because we have had incidents both in New York and in the Washington suburbs that - where PTC probably would've been of use. So we have to get this away from Amtrak to saying okay, how are we going to bring, you know, 21st-century technology to all our passenger rail safety components.
HARRISAnd then, honestly, it has to go to the freight rail, as well, because we know that the disastrous accidents resulting from oil spill, for instance, because, you know, the president refused to build a pipeline, so we're shipping all this oil by rail, and we have disastrous train accidents by freight, as well.
SESNOSo what do you expect will be happening in terms of this technology because I know that there are those who say we can't do it this fast. Ed Hamberger was talking about this earlier, in terms of the huge technological complexity and distance that we're talking about installing here. It's supposed to be done in 2015. Some suggestion in the Congress ask to extend that to 2020. What'll happen?
HARRISWell, we can't do it by 20- there's no question it can't be done by the end of the year. There are technological issues. But I think what we're going to do is we're now going to have a discussion to put in a realistic time frame. You know, what Congress tends to do, and the government tends to do, are put in these unrealistic timeframes for instituting these important measures. Obviously you had an unrealistic timeframe here. We have to get to the bottom of what it will take to install it, how much it will take to install it but separate this from, you know, the Amtrak passenger ticket subsidies, which is really what people have been concentrating is, you know, how does Congress dare to cut the Amtrak subsidy.
HARRISThat is a very different discussion from making sure that our safety fund has the adequate funds to roll out PTC in an orderly fashion and a realistic fashion throughout rail in the United States.
SESNOI have Jim Mathews, who's president and CEO of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, the group that represents passengers, and if you could see him, you would see that he's shaking his head no as you're speaking, so Jim, you want...
HARRISYou know, I represent railroad passengers, too. They happen to be my constituents, and so I don't think he represents them any better than anyone else.
SESNOWell, we'll see if you two can agree on something here, Jim?
MATHEWSWell, look, with respect, you know, we can try to parse this into ticket subsidy versus safety subsidy, but the fact is that Congress voted yesterday, or the House voted yesterday to take money away from an organization that has been struggling to find the money to install positive train control-related equipment in the busiest part of its system.
MATHEWSAnd if it had had enough money to do it, that curve may well have been able to be safe with the civil enforcement safety system, and that's the bottom line, you know, that we can parse this into a ticket subsidy or any other larger philosophical discussion all the way you'd like. The fact is that Amtrak has been on starvation rations for 45 years, and it is trying to make the best it can with the limited resources that it has, and generally speaking, it doesn't have enough to get from one corner of the bed to the other.
MATHEWSAnd so if they had had sufficient funding to get this done quicker, they would've. This is not a technology problem. They have the technology, and it's installed in certain parts of the corridor. It's just not complete. And the reason it's not complete is not because of technology, it's because of cost.
SESNOCongressman Harris, do you see more dollars flowing to this rail system?
HARRISI just have to disagree with Mr. Mathews. I mean, the experts have said it is a technology issue, and the funding for that does not come from the Amtrak subsidy, it comes from a different safety fund. I think we're going to augment that safety fund if what the result of this investigation shows is that we can get put on a definite timetable for improving passenger rail safety, and not just Amtrak.
HARRISYou know, the bottom line is, you know, money that goes to Amtrak comes from commuter rail safety. You know, this is a zero-sum game to some extent, and if we continue to subsidize only Amtrak, then what about all the commuter rail passengers, of which there are many more in the country in the various commuter rail systems who don't get the money, too, for the safety upgrades.
HARRISI think we should view it from the safety upgrade point of view, not from picking out one system over another for a specific subsidy.
SESNOFawn Johnson, let me call you in here in your capacity as a journalist to play referee here a little bit. From hearing all the sides, how do you assess this?
JOHNSONWell, I'm really glad that Congressman Harris called in to describe his concerns about Amtrak because I think that what you're hearing from him is a real sense of mistrust of Amtrak and how it manages its money on the point -- from the point of view of Congress and particularly congressional Republicans, who worry a lot about budget.
JOHNSONAnd, you know, I think the question really is how does Amtrak spend its money. If you -- you know, there is concern about whether the ticket prices are too high, and if they are too high, then they can't sell enough tickets, and they can't make any of the money back that they spend on their infrastructure. But then there are all kinds of other questions that this delves into that the congressman didn't mention that has come up over the years.
JOHNSONYou know, should they be spending money subsidizing their long-distance lines, which are money losers, or should they put more of their money in the Northeastern corridor? And, you know, frankly Amtrak has a checkered history in terms of being up front with Congress about how it spends its subsidy, which means that it makes it difficult for someone like Congressman Harris to say I'm going to vote for extra money, and I'm not even sure it's going to get what I want it to have happen in the end.
SESNOEd Rendell, let me come back to you because throw a little, you know, perspective here. This great high-speed rail that you talk about, or that should be, it costs almost as much to buy a ticket on the Acela, to go from Washington to New York, or certainly Washington to Boston, I could fly to Los Angeles for that. So how are taxpayers getting their dollars' worth out of all of this, and how are passengers supposed to look at this rail system?
RENDELLWell, Frank, you act as if this is the only rail system in the world that's subsidized. Every rail system in the world is subsidized and subsidized by the federal government. Look, there's no question that investment pays off. By the way, Amtrak in the Northeast corridor is doing incredibly well. They've added a boatload of riders. They're making money. In fact, they're making so much money that a Republican yesterday said one of his answers is going to be let Amtrak keep its profits and invest its profits in itself instead of spreading the profits around the entire nation.
RENDELLBut this is a discussion that should be more than just Amtrak. We should be discussing what we're doing for the nation's infrastructure. Twelve years ago, we were ranked first in the world. We're now twelfth in the world. Our infrastructure is crumbling as we talk, every aspect of it, including our transportation infrastructure, and Congress is cutting funding. In fact, yesterday, what didn't receive as much attention, but there was a bill called FUD in which Congress again cut transportation funding across the board.
SESNOAll right, and let me just remind our listeners that you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show, and I'm Frank Sesno, sitting in for Diane. If you'd like to join us, please call us at 1-800-433-8850. Or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We've gotten a couple of those. Let me just share them with you. Here's a tweet from Holly. Amtrak employees are overworked, on call 24/7, drive a long way to the train, very stressful job.
SESNOHere's another email from Emma. Would more funding for infrastructure actually help Amtrak in any real way? Hasn't it struggled since the start. Ed Hamberger, do you want to take one or both of those quickly?
HAMBERGERWell, I'd like to make sure your audience understands that when Governor Rendell talks about the railroads being subsidized, he is in fact talking about passenger rail being subsidized.
MANNAmerica's freight rail system is privately owned, privately maintained. We're spending 40 cents of every dollar back into the network, $29 billion this year and in fact got a pretty good mark from the Society of Civil Engineers. It's...
RENDELLAlthough Ed, if I can just interrupt here for a second, National Gateway and...
HAMBERGERThere are some public-private partnerships, you're absolutely correct, yeah.
RENDELLI put state money into those capital projects for CSX and for Norfolk Southern, and so did the federal government.
HAMBERGERAnd it put it...
HAMBERGERTo put it in perspective, from 2009 through 2012, our industry spent $90 billion of private capital, and there was $600 million of federal dollars that went in. So there are cases...
SESNOCongressman Harris, are you still with us?
HARRISYes, I am.
SESNOI know you've got a tight schedule, and you may have to go, and we're going to go to break in just a moment, but before you do, I want to ask you, conceptually, do you favor or oppose additional taxpayer dollars going to the rail system, to include the inter-city passenger rail system known as Amtrak?
HARRISYou know, we have to assess whether or not we need all those rail systems. Obviously the Northeast corridor is heavily used, and it makes money, but we have to question whether some of the Amtrak routes, the inter-city passenger rail routes, are still necessary and whether we really could replace with air fare.
SESNODo we really need a City of New Orleans going down to the city, you know, lovely, legendary train, but...
MATHEWSAs long as regional jets keep getting retired, yes, you absolutely do. Between the regional jets leaving and the buses leaving, you're isolating enormous parts of the country. What about places like Marks, Mississippi? What about places in the upper part of Montana? You're creating more and more flyover country and isolating more and more of those folks.
SESNOAndy Harris, Congressman Harris, I'll give you about 15 seconds to respond to that because then I've got to take a break and say thanks.
HARRISWell, I will tell you, look, the market will bring in - if you didn't have rail travel, you'd have bus travel. If you didn't have bus, you'd have air travel. The market system works. We're not going to isolate anyone, but we don't need rail, bus and air for some of these. They're beautiful train rides, some of these long train rides. But you know what? The people in my district don't benefit from a Los Angeles to Chicago train.
SESNOAll right, so all of you, thank you for your comments. The conversation will continue. We'll bring in your phone calls, and we're going to talk about a 104-year-old bridge when we come back.
SESNOAnd welcome back to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Frank Sesno sitting in for Diane today. And we're talking about this terrible derailment of Amtrak Train 188 the other day that claimed at least 7 lives, injured 200. And our panel today, Fawn Johnson, correspondent for National Journal, Jim Mathews, president and CEO of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, Larry Mann, rail safety attorney and principal draftsman of the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970, Ed Rendell, former governor of Pennsylvania, mayor of Philadelphia, co-chair of Building America's Future, and Ed Hamberger, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads.
SESNOAnd let me remind you, our listeners, that you can call in to the show. We're going to your questions in just a moment, at 800-433-8850. Send us an email at email@example.com or join us on Facebook or Twitters, and we've got plenty of emails. Ed Rendell, a few moments ago you were talking about aging infrastructure. Ed Hamberger speaking on behalf of the railroads, I want to ask you about a particular example, the 104 year old portal bridge. It crosses the Hackensack River between Manhattan and Newark. It was built in 1910. There was a story that The New York Times wrote about it last September.
SESNOAnd let me just quote briefly from this story, "It carries more passenger trains than any other railroad bridge in the western hemisphere. Every time it swings open to let a boat pass underneath, it's a test of early 20th century technology that can snarl train travel from Boston to Washington. It is partially made out of wood. It has proved to be quite flammable. Each day about 450 trains carrying more than 150,000 riders over the portal, a fragile choke point that crosses the river, pass over this bridge."
SESNO"Replacing the bridge, which Amtrak and others want to do, this one bridge would cost $900 million. Nearly a billion dollars. This is the best technology 1910 can buy. Trains can't go more than 60 miles an hour over this bridge, and we're in some delusional world that we're going to have high speed rail." What does this portal bridge say about our rail system and this infrastructure that the governor was talking about?
HAMBERGERWell, I think it says something about what needs to be done if we are in fact going to have high speed rail.
SESNOWhere's the money supposed to come to fix it?
HAMBERGERAnd that is the question. I think that Governor Rendell put his finger on it when he said that nowhere in the world is passenger rail run without subsidies. And the challenge that my freight rail members have is replacing those bridges, replacing those tunnels as they're doing throughout 140,000 mile network around the country.
SESNOWhy should the government be paying for this? Why?
HAMBERGERThe government is not paying for the freight rail investment.
SESNOWell, any of the infrastructure along the freight rail then?
HAMBERGERThere are some public private partnerships, but for the most part, it is overwhelmingly paid for by private sector funds for the freight rail system, over which Amtrak operates outside of the northeast corridor.
SESNOGovernor Rendell, how do we fix a system where one bridge would cost a billion dollars to replace?
RENDELLWell, in fact, if you want to be really depressed, Frank, there are seven Amtrak...
RENDELL...bridges -- seven Amtrak bridges that are more than 100 years old, and they all need to be replaced. We do it by what every other G20 nation has done. We have to have a massive infrastructure revitalization program in this country. Not just for transportation infrastructure, for our water and sewer and waste water, for our dams, for broadband, for electrical grid. We have a 20th century infrastructure and we're trying to compete with countries that pour money into their infrastructure. It's unbelievable. We have to do it. And the good news about doing it, it's going to cost money, but we've always invested in our infrastructure before.
RENDELLWhen Dwight Eisenhower decided we needed a national highway system, he paid for it. He paid for it. The United States taxpayers paid for it, because it inured to their benefit. We've got to do it again. And the good news is it'll enhance public safety, it'll increase our economic competitiveness and it will produce millions, millions of middle class well-paying jobs that every politician in Washington says we desperately need.
SESNOLet me ask you this. I noted earlier that you're co-chair of Building America's Future, and I know that you're involved in this project, this Maglev train, which would go super-fast. And Japan recently tested a bullet train that went over 300 miles an hour. This requires new right-of-way. It requires a gigantic new project. Is there any chance this is going to happen?
RENDELLWell, when Thomas Jefferson proposed the Erie Canal, people said, you can't do it. It's scientifically impossible. It's too expensive. When Abe Lincoln said we're going to build a transcontinental railroad, scientists told him, you'll never get the rail lines over the Rockies. It's too expensive. We're always told what we can't do. We used to do hard things in this country, Frank. We've stopped. We've stopped being the great pioneers, the great challengers of existing myths that say we can't. And unless we get back to that, we're going to be a second rate economic power by the time our grandkids are old enough to be sitting where we are.
SESNOAll right. Let's go to the phones now and we'll take our first caller, Jerry. He's joining us from Maryland I believe. Jerry, go ahead. Oh, wait, let me try again. Jerry, Jerry, you with us?
JERRYFrom O'Fallon, Mo.
SESNOOh, Missouri. Thank you very much for correcting that. Missouri is not Maryland.
JERRYNo. Very quickly, I agree completely with Gov. Rendell that I don't care if it's a billion dollars per bridge. Where does that money really go? You know, it goes into jobs. It goes into the companies that develop the technology that manufacture the materials. It stays in our economy and it multiplies. And it's certainly a lot better than spending trillions of dollars to destroy infrastructure in other countries. The other point is, I hope the congressman is still listening, air travel between two cities that are 250 miles apart or less, and I spent my career in the airline business, is a extreme waste of various resources, including time.
JERRYTo get from downtown St. Louis to downtown Chicago is going to take about a four-hour commitment by air. And if you're -- you know, a high speed rail could accomplish that in a little bit over an hour.
SESNOWell, I can tell you this, I was not terribly long ago in China, and I went to the Beijing terminal, which is unbelievable, and got on a very fast train that went to the city of Tianjin, not very far away, well, it's more than 60 miles away, I was there in half an hour. I mean, I remember looking up because they post the speed up above, and you can see it in kilometers how fast you were going. And I actually did my conversion so I could be absolutely right. We were doing 285 kilometers an hour, which was 177 miles an hour. I don't think it'd come close to that on the Acela, and if you do, it's for a half a second at a time.
RENDELLAnd, Frank, the...
SESNOGovernor, go ahead.
RENDELL...the caller is absolutely right. In Europe and Asia there is no air travel less than 500 miles because it's inexpensive and it's wasteful. It's all done by rail or by car.
SESNOLet's go to Adam who's calling us from Pittsburgh. Go ahead, Adam, with your call and question. Adam, you there? Perhaps not.
ADAM...taking my call.
SESNOOh, there we go.
ADAMYeah, thanks for taking my call. My question concerns the specifics as to the engineer. How long had he been on duty at the time of the accident? And what are the regulations governing length of time between rest periods? And who enforces how much rest there is between stops? Also I'd like to just make an observation about the comments thus far, as to the situation with infrastructure, you know, nationwide and globally. Obviously the situation in our country has reached critical proportions given this latest incident, as well as the freight incidence in Canada where a town was nearly burned down, and some incidents in North Dakota with moving large amounts of petroleum products across the rail line. So thank you for your time.
SESNOThank you very much for your call. Ed Hamberger, let me turn to you on that, because these are very serious and real questions, and they cut to the core of not convenience, but safety.
HAMBERGERAbsolutely. And I believe the specifics of this engineer will be coming to light. I think board member and Zumwalt said that that is something that they would be getting into.
SESNOWhat is required though? What...
HAMBERGERIt's 12 hours off with 10 hours of uninterrupted rest between assignments. And that is at least for the freights. I don't know if it is different for Amtrak.
SESNOAnd how long in the cab?
HAMBERGERUp to 12 hours.
SESNOUp to 12 hours in the cab?
SESNODoesn't that seem like a long time?
HAMBERGERThere's a total of about 250 hours a month, so you do get rest, and that is the regulation.
SESNOWhat does the National Association of Railway Passengers have to say about this?
MATHEWSNot very much. I mean, obviously safety is everyone's concern, and, you know, certainly in the northeast corridor you're not looking at, you know, distances where you're going to spend 12 hours in the cab.
SESNOFawn Johnson, I can presume that a lot of the focus of the investigation and the media coverage is going to be about this engineer, how much time was he on...
SESNO...and broadly speaking, what does this job description look like.
JOHNSONRight. And actually I'd be very curious to see if we start to see some -- as some of these details come out, some members of congress trying to come up with different ways of tweaking that. There's been debates about any number of travel, so pilots have various rules and engineers do as well. But to date, what they've been talking about is more the infrastructure issue, so it's just -- it depends on how the dialogue starts to go.
SESNOOkay. Another call here, Sally joins us from Michigan. Sally, you there?
SALLYYeah, from Royal Oak, Mich. Thanks for taking my call.
SESNOThank you for joining us and being so patient and waiting.
SALLYNot a problem. I have a comment question, and it's right at -- I lay this right at the feet of the congress, the government. You know, I'm sitting here listening and I remember that infamous, to me, Ronald Reagan, what are the nine scariest words in the world, "I'm from the government and I'm here to help." That was, to me, kind of -- very disingenuous. And it seemed to set the tone a long time ago for this disgust and mistrust of the government. We are the government, and we've been kind of lulled into a sense that we don't have to pay taxes or why our things are so high. We live in a country that's so wonderful and great, and we can't live here for free.
SALLYAnd there's nothing wrong with having this complete buy-in that we need when Gov. Rendell and the other guests are talking about how much money is absolutely poured into technology, poured into infrastructure. In the meantime, we're having this back and forth battle with, well, it should be business, no, it should be government. The business is -- we're in the business of business in this country, and I'm all for it, but at the same time, this has got to be -- this has got to get back to some kind of 50/50, some kind of reciprocity, or we are -- we're all in for I don't know how many more rude awakenings. This is just not -- who are we pointing at? It's us.
SESNOSally, I think you should run for office if you haven't done it already, because you're very articulate there. But let me take your comment and turn it into a question for Gov. Rendell, because, Governor, you've been in the position of having to try to get these dollars. At a very serious level, you have a very serious discussion between massive public investment at a time of financial and fiscal limitation, where people want to know that their dollars are being well-spent. You also have the politicization of all of this. How do we as a country navigate through that?
RENDELLWell, let me question your question. You say this is at a time of limited financial opportunity. Didn't we just pour $3 trillion into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? We found the money to do that. The American Society of Engineers say we need about the same amount of money in the next ten years to put our infrastructure into fair condition. I assume if the will is there, if the guts are there, if the cards are there, we can do it. And by the way, the caller quoted Ronald Reagan. Let me give you another Ronald Reagan quote. When he raised the gas tax, and listen to that, Republicans, he raised the gas tax. He said, why would we delay fixing our roads and highways now? When you do it ten years from now, it'll be three times as expensive."
SESNOAnd, Fawn Johnson, I'm going to quote another politician, Bill Clinton, who said, the era of big government is over.
SESNOSo we have a very complicated and confused...
SESNO...discussion in this country.
JOHNSONAnd one of the things that I have -- I've watched over the course of the last four or five years when we've had the question about how big the government should be. Some of the transportation issues that have been surfacing over the years have been swept underneath things like, are we going to have a government at all? Are we going to go over a fiscal cliff?
JOHNSONBut the good news is, I mean, there's a lot of bad news today, but I think having watched the general transportation debate, I can tell you that members of congress as we speak are trying to figure out a way to come up with a long-term surface transportation bill. It'll be the first time it's happened in ten years. And they're doing so, and they're talking about coming up with ways of doing it through taxes and other kinds of issues that we hadn't talked about before. So there is some willingness to engage in these longer term questions that wasn't there five years ago.
SESNOI'm Frank Sesno, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And continuing with this conversation, Gov. Rendell, I know you want to jump in, but just let me just share a couple of other emails that we've gotten from our very engaged listeners throughout this discussion. This is from Rose, "The Amtrak train system is aging. It would cost a lot to update it. Why don't we use those funds to implement a bullet train?"
SESNOAnother from Alex in Florida, "Could someone explain why Amtrak is government-owned and how that came to be?" From Joan in Kansas, "If some parts of the rail system have the safeguards in place, what are the technological problems that prevent it from being installed in the rest of the system?" Ed Hamberger, let me let you take that one first.
HAMBERGERThat last one is an excellent question. And what positive train control is, is a series of systems that have to communicate from one railroad to another, from the dispatch center from railroad to another. We have to develop something called a breaking algorithm. The train consists can be different. It can be full of loaded grain cars or they could be empty grain cars. It could be a passenger train. And each one of those has different operating characteristics and how long it's going to take to stop. The computer has to know that, has to know the condition of the track, has to know the weather before it can determine whether or not the engineer is operating appropriately or not.
HAMBERGERAnd we have a 70,000 mile network, about half of our network that is going to have to be outfitted with this. So it's both technology and then just the time and the resources -- the component parts...
SESNOAnother email that I want to ask you about, Ed, while you're at this, is from Nick in Virginia, who says, "When, if ever, are CSX as track owners and Amtrak going to upgrade the rails to welded tracks?" So welded track is very important if you're going to have modern track. It's certainly essential if you're going to have high speed. He's asking CSX, which is a freight rail, private, and Amtrak.
HAMBERGERI believe, in fact, the continuous welded rail is the standard that CSX is implementing across their network, so I'm not sure exactly what piece of track Nick is referring to in Virginia. But it's about a mile long, the piece of track, continuous welded rail, and that is what the freights are using.
SESNOI'm going to try to get one more caller in here. Spencer is joining us from North Carolina. If I could ask you to ask your question about ten seconds, we'll see if we can get the panel to go around on it. Hi, Spencer.
SPENCERSure. What happened to the $1 trillion that Barack Obama put into the infrastructure when the recession came along? That was supposed to recover everything.
SESNOGreat question. Fawn?
JOHNSONThat is a great question. And that's exactly the question that Republicans have been asking when they wanted to know what happened to the Amtrak money. There's a lot of answers to the question. It did go to some, what they call, shovel ready projects that were not involving rail at all. And then one of the places that it went in terms of high speed rail was for a -- I guess you could -- the charitable way to say it is a not so successful track in California that...
SESNOYeah, they wanted high speed rail in California.
SESNOAnd California didn't even want it.
JOHNSONRight, exactly. So that's the short answer. But, yeah, part of that -- that's one of the reasons why people in congress are skeptical.
SESNOEd Rendell, Gov. Rendell, we're almost out of time here, so let me ask you to do this in about 15 seconds if you can. If this conversation is going to move forward as it should, what's required?
RENDELLCourage. Courage on the behalf of legislators to do the right thing and invest in the country's future. And by the way, in Pennsylvania we got $1 billion for roads and highways. We reduced our number of structured efficient bridges from 6600 to 4500.
SESNOJim Mathews, your answer to that question.
MATHEWSAll I can say is I applaud Gov. Rendell. I think that's the perfect answer. We know it needs to be done. We just had to have the will to do it.
SESNOEd Hamberger, from the industry?
HAMBERGERWell, again, speaking from the freight rail industry, we are out there investing our money from the standpoint of the passenger rail. I think the governor hit it. There needs to be a will to invest.
SESNOThis is a very complicated story, series of stories really about rail safety, about infrastructure, about investment, about accountability, so it will go on, as will the investigation into this terrible derailment that took place. To our panelists, Fawn Johnson, Jim Mathews, Larry Mann, Ed Rendell, Ed Hamberger and Congressman Andy Harris, thanks to you all for joining the conversation today. I'm Frank Sesno. This is "The Diane Rehm Show."
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