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House Republicans Vote To Cut Amtrak's Funding


The economic outlook for Amtrak was challenging even before this week's train derailment in Philadelphia. Amtrak says trains are not going to start running between New York and Philadelphia for a few more days. That blocks the busiest stretch of the rail network, which means lost revenue just as Congress battles over rail funding. NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Amtrak's CEO Joseph Boardman tried to strike a balance. After apologizing for this week's accident, Boardman went on to defend the railroad safety record.


JOSEPH BOARDMAN: Twenty-eight years ago was the last time there was a derailment on the Northeast Corridor - 28 years. And 300 million people have ridden Amtrak since then, no derailment, no loss of life.

ROSE: That is, until Tuesday night. Eight people died after an Amtrak train derailed in North Philadelphia. Hundreds of other passengers were injured. Andrew Brenner was on the train.

ANDREW BRENNER: I trust Amtrak to get me to my destination safely. And I don't know that I'm ever going to be able to trust them to do that again.

ROSE: Brenner was sitting near the back of the train that derailed. He rides Amtrak a lot. In fact, he was planning to take it from Washington to New York every week for a new job. Now Brenner is rethinking that plan.

BRENNER: I don't know who in their right mind would feel comfortable stepping foot on an Amtrak train anywhere.

ROSE: 30th Street Station in Philadelphia was a lot quieter than usual on Thursday. There were no trains running to or from New York. But dozens of riders were boarding a train to Washington, including Elaine Verna and Bob Dockhorn.

ELAINE VERNA: I'm not afraid to get on the train right now. I mean, things happen. And I feel pretty safe.

BOB DOCKHORN: I've thought about it. And I could have driven, but I decided - I love train travel. So I decided to go.

ROSE: After previous rail accidents, transportation experts say ridership bounced back pretty quickly. And this derailment on the heavily traveled Northeast Corridor may be no different.

DON PHILLIPS: I doubt it will have any real effect at all, at least after a few days.

ROSE: Don Phillips is a columnist at Trains magazine.

PHILLIPS: There have been accidents before on the corridor and elsewhere. And people still ride. Commuter railroads continue to take people into work in the morning and home at night. And there just doesn't seem to be a problem with discouraging people from riding.

ROSE: Regardless of when ridership returns to normal levels, Amtrak's financial problems will remain. That's according to Mark Burton, a transportation economist at the University of Tennessee. He says Amtrak spends a lot more money than it takes in from riders.

MARK BURTON: I don't know of any passenger rail system anyplace in the world that doesn't require some amount of subsidy. Perhaps there is such a thing, but I don't know of a profit-making passenger rail system anyplace on the planet.

ROSE: Congress has balked at picking up the tab for Amtrak. The day after the derailment, the House Appropriations Committee voted to cut a fifth of Amtrak's $1.4 billion budget. Some Democrats say underfunding might have led to this week's accident. But Republican House Speaker John Boehner rejected that idea.


SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE JOHN BOEHNER: Adequate funds were there. No money's been cut from rail safety. And the House passed a bill earlier this spring to reauthorize Amtrak and authorize a lot of these programs.

ROSE: But not enough to satisfy House Democrats, who tried to restore the funding for next year but failed. Mark Burton, at the University of Tennessee, says Amtrak has been a political football for the past 40 years.

BURTON: The funding struggle that, you know, they're having now is no different than the one that they've had under a variety of administrations.

ROSE: Burton says this week's accident is not going to make Amtrak any new friends on Capitol Hill, even if Northeast Corridor trains are as crowded as ever next week. Joel Rose, NPR News, Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.