Parties point fingers on deadly Amtrak crash

Parties point fingers on deadly Amtrak crash
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House Republicans spent hours on Tuesday criticizing the pace of the investigation into a deadly Amtrak crash in Philadelphia while their Democratic colleagues blamed GOP funding decisions for decreasing rail safety.

Republicans criticized National Transportation Board (NTSB) investigators for delays in confirming crash details beyond the 106-mile-per-hour speed of the train that was reported shortly after last month's crash, such as whether or not the engineer was using his cell phone in the seconds before the derailment. 

Democrats, meanwhile, blasted GOP lawmakers for funding cuts that was approved by a House committee the day after the crash. 

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“The engineer has been working with NTSB, but [the NTSB] still cannot verify that the cell phone that was in use, whether it was texting or using cell phone service during that time,” Rep. Jeff DenhamJeffrey (Jeff) John DenhamLatino advocacy group targets 7 Republicans in push against ObamaCare replacement Republicans push for 'visionary' Amtrak leader Obama's proposed high-speed rail network stuck in station MORE (R-Calif.), who is the chairman of the House Rail subcommittee, said during a House Transportation Committee hearing.

“It's my understanding the engineer has given his password and yet we can't still identify whether or not there was an issue,” Denham continued.

Democrats were more forgiving of the investigation delays, focusing instead on a vote by members of the House Appropriations Committee on the day after the Amtrak crash to cut the agency’s funding by nearly $300 million. 

“On the day of the accident, they cut...$290 million from the capital budget of Amtrak. The capital budget goes to things like positive train control,” Rep. Peter DeFazioPeter Anthony DeFazioPipeline regulators pressed to act on gas storage leaks Bill introduced to end the draft Watchdog finds inefficiencies in US airline oversight MORE (D-Ore.) said, referencing an automated system that investigators have said could have possibly prevented the deadly crash. 

“We can't point to this accident and say that it was directly caused by a lack of investment. That's true,” DeFazio continued.  “We still don't know what happened, and we're looking forward to the NTSB [report]. But we do know that the NTSB first, in 1969, proposed that we should move forward with positive train control.” 

NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart told the panel that his agency is working as quickly as possible to determine more information about the May 12 crash, which occurred when an Amtrak train traveling from Washington, D.C. to New York City derailed. 

The train was carrying more than 200 passengers, and at least eight of them were killed in the wreck. 

Hart defended the NTSB’s finding thus far, including the speed of the train and the possibility of the crash being prevented by the automated control system. 

“Much work remains, but there are a few facts that I can report to you today,” he said. “We know that a properly installed and functional positive train control or PTC would have prevented this accident.”

Amtrak President Joe Boardman told lawmakers that the positive train control system would be installed on company's heavily traveled Northeast Corridor (NEC) by the end of the year. 

"No other Class 1 railroad in the United States, not one, is as far along in installing PTC as Amtrak is," he said.

"I promise you that by the end of this year this system, which will dramatically enhance safety, will be complete and operational on the NEC," he continued.

The NTSB's Hart said, meanwhile, that it has been more complicated than investigators had anticipated to determine if the operator of the Amtrak train was distracted by his cell phone, although the engineer has turned his phone records over to the NTSB. 

“This process involves reviewing the time stamps from the phone records, which are from different time zones, with data from other recorded information, such as the locomotive event recorder, the outward-facing camera, radio communications and surveillance video,” he said.  

GOP leaders said it was disconcerting that the investigation is taking so long to complete. 

“My concern is the NTSB came out and made an immediate statement a couple of hours after the accident but three weeks later is unable to identify any of these issues around it,” Denham said.

“I think this committee expects answers,” he continued. “I think these families are owed answers. I think the American public is looking to make sure that rail is safe across our entire nation.” 

Democrats, meanwhile, pushed for more funding for Amtrak and pressed Amtrak officials about the possibility of adding seatbelts to trains. 

“You know, we talk a good game but we're the funders. Are we going to fund this or are we not going to fund it?” Rep. Michael CapuanoMichael (Mike) Everett CapuanoPipeline regulators pressed to act on gas storage leaks SEC can still work on a corporate political disclosure rule Parties point fingers on deadly Amtrak crash MORE (D-Mass.) asked. 

“Positive train control is an issue across the country on every rail line in this country," he continued. "Are we going to require it or are we not?”

Capuano added that seat belts may have prevented some of the injuries that occured in the Amtrak crash if they had been required, as they are in cars and airplanes. 

“I just rode the train up to Philadelphia with Mr. Denham. There are no seat belts on the train,” he added. “Yet, I flew down here today from Boston. ... I had a seat belt on the entire time. And it would strike me that...seat belts would be something that should be considered, both to prevent death and injury.” 

Acting Federal Railroad Administration chief Sarah Feinberg said that adding seat belts to rail cars might be more complicated than it would appear.  

“While I recognize that seat belts might seem like a good solution in the event of an accident, there are also people who tend to be up and walking around between cars during an accident,” she said. 

“We would certainly work closely with the NTSB, just as we do on every recommendation, but there is a belief that the hardening of the seats that would be required in order to put seat belts onto trains would actually cause more injuries in an accident,” Feinberg continued.