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Opinion: Congress needs to make Amtrak safer

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Just days after the weekend crash of an Amtrak train, killing three persons and injuring more than 50, the House is expected Thursday to vote on an infrastructure bill that would, in part, give Amtrak $66 billion to update its aging system less than two years after significant technology was installed nationwide to curb the chance of tragedies like the latest derailment from happening. The Senate already passed the measure with bipartisan support.

Clearly, something at Amtrak is broken that still needs fixing — and the faster it can be done, without more politicking and posturing by Congress, the better off the public will be.

In December 2020, it was announced that Amtrak and 40 other rail companies had completed the federal legislature's mandate to put positive train control (PTR) on nearly 60,000 miles of track. The software system was designed to automatically guide how fast trains are going and their movements in order to stop more deadly crashes from occurring.

Fast forward to today and Amtrak must overcome another blow — it suffered other major deadly derailments near Seattle in 2017 (three killed, 65 injured) and in South Carolina in 2018 (two killed, 118 injured) — just when the public has started to feel it's safe to travel now that an increasing number of people have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

According to an infrastructure report card issued earlier this year, our national transit system needs repairs estimated to cost a whopping total of $176 billion. Estimates said that PTR alone required $6-$22 billion to fully implement in the U.S.

In the rail industry, those crucial corrections need to be made quickly, so the industry doesn't have to keep coming back to the Congressional feeding trough over and over again.

In the wake of the latest train derailment that took place in Joplin, Montana, rail officials should monitor their tracks and immediately prioritize which changes need to be instituted first.

To speed the prioritization process, the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the tragic derailment, should release its preliminary findings as soon as possible.

And the public deserves answers to why Amtrak keeps derailing — Congress should hold new hearings on how to make the system safer.

Robert A. Clifford, is founder and Senior Partner, Clifford Law Offices, Chicago, Ill. Clifford Law Offices obtained nearly $57 million settlement in June on behalf of its clients in the derailment of the 2017 Amtrak crash near Seattle.

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The permanent solution to the “gridlock” is for the Senate to simply follow the Constitution. All matters, unless specified by the Constitution, should simply be decided by a majority vote.

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