Countless articles have discussed the recent tragic derailment of an Amtrak train outside of Philadelphia, and the consequent deaths of eight passengers and severe injuries to many more. Countless reasons have been cited for Amtrak’s failure to prevent its trains from traveling at high speed around curves, and countless theories have been voiced as to why adequate safety measures were not in place.
But all such theories can be summarized in one word: money (or the lack thereof). For decades now, Amtrak has received the barest funding from Congress, just slightly more than would allow the most primitive train service for America. Indeed, just days before the accident, a committee of the House of Representatives had announced it would cut over a billion dollars from the annual Amtrak appropriation proposed to Congress by the White House.
We are willing to spend many billions each year on interstate highways and air traffic controls, but we allow just a bit more than $1 billion a year to fund Amtrak. Rails remain unimproved and barely adequate, trains are rarely replaced by more modern versions, signaling and controls are primitive, and prominent car-happy members of Congress are heard to claim that Amtrak is unnecessary. Government should remain small and weak, according to these statesmen, and the less money spent on rail equipment, the better.
There was a time when we in the United States thought differently, when we believed in spending government funds for physical facilities that could improve our lives. That philosophy dates back to the time of Abraham Lincoln, who arranged for government funding of the transcontinental railway. The same philosophy was promoted by President Dwight Eisenhower, who advocated spending billions of federal funds to create an interstate highway system, which has done wonders for our economy. And that philosophy was a bipartisan belief in 1946, when Congress passed a bill sponsored by a Democratic Senator from Alabama and a Republican Senator from Ohio (the Hill-Burton Act), appropriating billions of dollars for the construction of hospitals in areas of the U.S. with insufficient medical facilities. Congress’ appropriations were to be matched by equal amounts from the States in question, and the result of this groundbreaking legislation literally was hundreds of new hospitals in our nation, available within a short distance from all our citizens. Read up on the “Hill-Burton Act,” and you'll glimpse the kind of nation we once were.
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When will we adopt a “Hill-Burton Act” for our nation’s railways? When we will stop prating about “small government” and take the steps that only an effective government can provide? When we will decide to modernize our infrastructure, and create a railway system that is not only adequate to our economic transportation needs – but also safe?
Arthur Frommer is the founder of the Frommer’s Travel Guide book series. Find more destinations and read his blog at frommers.com.