Congress: “Do It … But On Your Dime.”

Several years ago, following a deadly collision in California, Congress directed the nation’s railroads to install a safety system known as PTC (Positive Train Control). It uses global positioning and computer technology to prevent such accidents, but it’s costing many billions of dollars. The federal mandate also applied to Amtrak for its track along the Northeast Corridor from Washington to New York and on up to Boston.
And how much did Congress contribute to those costs? Zero, zip, nada. So the politicians can say “We took immediate action to prevent another such tragedy!” but they didn’t provide any money to help get the job done, not even for cash-strapped Amtrak. It’s called an unfunded mandate.

And, of course, almost exactly a year ago, on a stretch of track near Philadelphia where the new system had not yet been installed, Amtrak had a wreck the PTC system would probably have prevented. It killed eight people and injured 200.
Amtrak has since finished installing the system along the entire Northeast Corridor, but the freight railroads didn’t meet their deadline to do so. They did, however, petition Congress to extend the deadline and—why are we not surprised?—the petition has been granted.
In a statement just released to the media, Jim Mathews, president and CEO of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, said “Congress extended the deadline for PTC installation three years to 2018 – a move we accepted on the condition that Congress provide adequate funding to accelerate installation. So far, Congress has failed to live up to their side of the bargain.“
And in a related issue on this same sorry subject, I must point out that some months back, Congress—led by John Mica (R-Florida) and others of his party and of his ilk— generated yet another unfunded mandate affecting passenger rail: it is now the law that Amtrak must break even on its food service within five years. And did Mica and Friends come up with any extra money to help Amtrak meet that mandate?
Aw, come on! You know the answer to that!