Harris wants answers in Amtrak crash before supporting more funding

Rep. Andy Harris is open to the possibility that Amtrak needs more money to improve safety along its busy Northeast Corridor.

But the only Republican in Maryland's congressional delegation said he would need more information before supporting such an increase.


How funding for the railroad relates to the deadly derailment this week of an Amtrak train in Philadelphia is a technical question more than an ideological one, Harris said in an interview Friday. And one, he said, that hasn't been resolved.

"We have to find out what went wrong for [the derailment] to have occurred, and then in an orderly process try to solve it," Harris said. "There are a lot of questions now, but we really don't have all the answers."

That position stands in stark contrast to the black-and-white pronouncements by others in Congress — Republicans and Democrats — in the aftermath of the crash Tuesday night that killed eight.

Hours after the derailment, the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee voted to reject a Democratic proposal to boost the railroad's funding by more than $1 billion. Harris, a member of the panel, joined his GOP colleagues in voting to cut funding for next year by about $251 million.

Democrats in Maryland and across the country criticized the vote. They laid the blame for the derailment — and the fact the train wasn't stopped by an automatic "positive train control" system — on what they described as a failure to invest in infrastructure.

"Now is the time to fund Amtrak," Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, said in a statement. "Passengers shouldn't fear stepping on the train. They should have confidence that their train system is modern, safe and secure."

Republicans, in turn, denounced the Democrats' focus on funding as political opportunism. They cited National Transportation Safety Board data that showed the train was traveling more than 100 mph when it entered a curve rated for 50 mph.

"Obviously, it's not about funding," House Speaker John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said this week. "The train was going twice the speed limit."


Harris said he's not convinced either way.

Amtrak and other passenger railroads will almost certainly fail to meet a federal requirement to have positive train control in place by the end of the year, he said, and specified funding could be needed to speed the process.

But he said he would not support a $1 billion increase to Amtrak's budget proposed in the aftermath of a disaster.

"It just struck me that it was not the appropriate response to just cast money in a whole bunch of different directions hoping some of it would help solve these problems," Harris said. "I don't think that's the approach we should take."

The answer might be more about cutting "government red tape" than about funding, he said.

Harris asked the Appropriations Committee to request information from Amtrak about what had gone wrong.


He said he was told that a positive train control system — capable of slowing a speeding train based on posted speed limits and the GPS location of the train — was installed on the stretch where the train derailed but was not yet operating.

Amtrak is in negotiations with the Federal Communications Commission for bandwidth on which to run the system.

"What we have to do is get to the bottom of what kind of safety measures we need to avoid this kind of thing in the future," Harris said. "Every member of Congress, I hope, is interested in ensuring our rails are safe."