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Former Amtrak chair (and our current chair) on the derailment and need for investment

As former Amtrak Board Chairman, my thoughts and prayers are with the crew, passengers and their families after last night’s derailment in Philadelphia.

John Robert Smith

John Robert Smith

I was chair in 1999, when a track circuit malfunction caused a train-truck collision in Bourbonnais, IL that killed 11. I well remember the shock and grief experienced by those on board, and the entire Amtrak family.

While we can’t yet be certain of the cause, the Philadelphia tragedy underscores the long ignored need to seriously invest in our nation’s passenger rail system and its supporting infrastructure. For decades we have starved our passenger rail network of the resources to build and maintain a world-class transportation asset for our people and the cities and towns connected by it.

Today, interest in passenger rail in America is witnessing a renaissance throughout the country. In the Northeast Corridor, where the Philadelphia crash occurred, ridership was up 8 percent over last year as of March 31. America’s national passenger rail system is integral to connecting people and economies, stimulating economic development in large and small communities, and providing transportation options in more than 500 communities throughout this country.

And yet the House this week is acting on a bill that would slash Amtrak’s capital dollars – money for track upkeep, for example – by $290 million. This is a penny wise, dollar foolish move that will only lead to worse delays, at best, and more tragedies like Tuesday’s at worst.

The Senate, meanwhile, is working to introduce a reauthorization proposal for the nation’s passenger rail system here soon, the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act. That proposal, being fashioned by Senators Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Cory Booker (D-NJ), is sure to be more hopeful and forward-looking than current debate in the House. With those two taking the lead, it should bridge geographic and political divisions and begin to address our shared national needs for a safe, secure, efficient and reliable national passenger rail system.

I joined the Amtrak board when I was mayor of Meridian, MS, at a time when service to my town – and much of America – was threatened. We survived that dark period long enough to see the return of interest in passenger rail, including in the popular Northeast corridor, where Tuesday’s crash occurred. We should be rewarding our passengers, and our nation, with a more reliable, safe and pride-inducing rail system through more robust investment.

The Hon. John Robert Smith is the Chairman of T4America’s Advisory Board.