Highway bill delay stalls Amtrak crash victim relief effort

Highway bill delay stalls Amtrak crash victim relief effort

A bid to increase the amount that Amtrak can be sued for in the wake of a deadly train crash near Philadelphia has been stalled by the gridlock in Congress over highway funding.

A six-year transportation-funding bill that was approved last week by the Senate would have lifted a cap on Amtrak's liability in accident lawsuits to $295 million.

The House refused to take up the Senate's long-term transportation bill, however, forcing the chamber to accept a temporary patch that does not include the rail liability provisions. 

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"It is heart-wrenching," said Washington Attorney Kenneth Feinberg — who is seen as a disaster relief maestro after handling cases for BP and General Motors — to the Philadephia Inquirer of the delay. 

The liability cap, which applies to all passenger railroads, is currently $200 million. Congress set the cap in 1997, during a period when Amtrak's finances were on the rocks. 

One lawmaker, Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonRepublicans amp up attacks on Tlaib's Holocaust comments The muscle for digital payment Rubio says hackers penetrated Florida elections systems MORE (D-Fla.), tried to increase the liability cap to $500 million this year after the May Amtrak crash, but he was unsuccessful in getting the lawsuit barrier doubled before lawmakers started wrapping up their business for July. 

“We can’t allow anyone to suffer additionally due to an outdated cap based on mid-1990 dollars,” Nelson, who missed time in Washington because of a cancer diagnosis, said in a statement when his measure was first introduced. 

Amtrak train number 188 derailed just outside of Philadelphia while traveling from Washington, D.C. to New York, killing eight people and injuring more than 140 others.

The train was carrying approximately 240 passengers, and it was traveling 106 miles per hour at the time of the accident, which was more than double the speed limit in that area of track.

Democrats in the Senate tried previously to lift the rail settlement cap to $500 million after a 2008 commuter rail accident in California, but the measure was never brought up for a vote in the upper chamber. 

The rail industry has historically opposed the idea of increasing the liability cap, arguing that it would force train companies to raise ticket prices. 

"While laudable in its goal of attempting to protect Americans who use commuter rail service, it will have the unintended consequence of raising the cost of liability insurance that all commuter railroads must buy without recognizing the impact on the riders who will pay higher ticket costs or the taxpayers who finance commuter rail in America," the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) wrote in a 2010 letter to Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) when she was pushing to increase the rail liability cap to $500 million. 

"Commuter railroads assume responsibility for risks associated with their operations, which in turn requires every commuter rail agency to buy substantial amounts of liability insurance to pay for damages that may arise as a result of accident," the transit group's letter continued. "Since many commuter railroads operate over shared freight rail tracks, they must also negotiate shared-use agreements with freight railroads, negotiations which could be greatly complicated by this legislation." 

Nelson's office said earlier this year when it was pushing to double the lawsuit limit that the cap was set at $200 million because "Congress decided [then] the cap was necessary to keep Amtrak and a then-sagging rail industry from potential financial failure in the event of a major accident." 

Experts have said the $200 million cap now "may not be enough for medical and other expenses given the scope of the potential damages in the May 12 Amtrak crash,” according to Nelson’s office.