As investigators search for answers following the deadly derailment of an Amtrak train in Philadelphia late Tuesday, the accident is raising new questions about funding for America's struggling commuter rail systems.
Voting along party lines, the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday voted to maintain Amtrak funding cuts of close to $300 million now contained in the overall transportation bill. Many Republicans have long argued that Amtrak should wean itself of public funding, that it needs to figure out how to be self-sustaining. They say cutting funding would force the railway to innovate.
Commenting on the Appropriation Committee's action, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters at a daily briefing Wednesday: "We've been very clear about (what) we believe is the appropriate level of funding for Amtrak, in the president's budget ... a nearly $1 billion increase." Noting the move to cut Amtrak's funding further, Earnest held out hope that it won't go through. "We're at the very beginning at the appropriations process," he said.
All of this unfolds as passenger rail in the U.S. undergoes what a recent Brookings Institution report describes as a "renaissance." In fiscal 2014, Amtrak posted record ticket revenues and a record ridership of 11.6 million along its crucial Northeast Corridor.
"Amtrak is clearly selling a product that is very much in demand," Amtrak Chairman Tony Coscia said late last year. "Achieving strong ridership and revenue despite the challenges with aging infrastructure and freight rail congestion demonstrates Amtrak's commitment to improving its financial and operating performance."
And the American Society of Civil Engineers, which gave the U.S. rail system a grade of "C+" in its 2013 national infrastructure report card, noted that U.S. railroads have made considerable investments in their tracks, bridges and tunnels.
"Since 2009, capital investment from both freight and passenger railroads has exceeded $75 billion," the report added, "actually increasing investment during the recession when materials prices were lower and trains ran less frequently."
Advocates of U.S. rail travel are looking for financial solutions to keep passenger trains moving and expanding. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) has recommended the creation of a federal program of $50 billion over a six-year period to supplement Amtrak funding for investments in high-speed intercity passenger rail service.
"Transportation infrastructure needs to be funded at a higher level so we can provide safe and reliable service and meet the growing demand," Rob Healy, the APTA's vice president for government affairs, said in a statement to CBS MoneyWatch.
Jim Matthews, president and CEO of the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) released a statement on Wednesday saying his organization "will continue to push ahead for a bipartisan, constructive and meaningful debate on the appalling infrastructure investment crisis facing America." But Matthews -- a former volunteer firefighter and medic -- also noted that in the wake of the Philadelphia crash, "today is not the time to push or to speculate on what might have gone wrong."