Amtrak in crisis

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Monday, February 5, 2018

We are in uncharted country. In its 47 years, Amtrak has been to the wall often. But those instances were political or funding dramas. This is different. Now the public is entitled to ask: Is it safe to board an Amtrak train?

In December it was Tacoma. A train runs right off the rails doing 50 mph over the speed limit on a 30-mph curve. Safety violations were egregious. In January a train carrying Republican members of Congress hits a garbage truck at a gated crossing in rural Virginia. Again, this was not supposed to happen. Somebody screwed up. And Sunday the Silver Star runs through a lined and locked switch into a siding in Dixiana, S.C., striking an unattended CSX freight train with horrific force. Yet more egregious safety violations, this time perhaps not by Amtrak (but does it matter who is at fault?).

What’s to be done? Amtrak is not helpless. President Richard Anderson would be smart to call a one-day nationwide stand down, for operating employees to review basic safety rules. Some would call this an empty gesture, but don’t be fooled. It’s not just employees who need assurance that they can work safely but the traveling public as well. So a pause in business as usual would be reassuring and understandable.

The Federal Railroad Administration in normal times could step in with a safety audit of Amtrak—another means of assuring the public that they could board a train without fear. But Democratic senators from New York and New Jersey, led by Chuck Schumer, are blocking a confirmation vote on Ron Batory’s nomination as administrator, and the deputy administrator is on indefinite leave. FRA’s career general counsel (chief attorney) is nominally in charge. Still, the agency is perceived now as rudderless. 

The public needs a functioning FRA, whose overriding responsibility is railroad safety. For that to happen, it needs leadership, that is to say, an administrator. Mr. Batory, who is eminately qualified, can be confirmed in several ways. The best solution is for Senator Schumer to announce he has demonstrated to President Trump the necessity of funding the New York Gateway project and immediately withdraw his “hold” on a confirmation vote. Such a gesture would be interpreted as statesmanlike.

If the four Democrats are still too angry to perceive the need to end the confirmation stalemate, it is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s responsibility to bring Senate business to a halt for the several days necessary to push through a cloture vote to end the “hold.” He needs 51 votes. 

And if Senator McConnell fails to understand this, we do still have a President, don’t we? As has occurred so often, Mr. Trump’s Tweet machine is powerful at sending out a message.

Or our nation’s leadership can continue to avert its eyes and let this sad cycle play itself out. Where next?—Fred W. Frailey

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