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After Derailment, Congress Debates Lifting Amtrak's Damage Cap


Last week's Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia renewed questions about a decades-old law which limits the money Amtrak can pay out in damages. Some Democratic lawmakers want to raise the limit. Here's NPR's Juana Summers.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Lawmakers have been trying to raise the payout cap for single-passenger rail accidents for years, and last week's deadly crash near Philadelphia could give them a political tailwind.

SENATOR RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: There has been a sea change in attitude here.

SUMMERS: That's Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, one of the lawmakers proposing that the $200 million per crash cap on liabilities paid out to crash victims be lifted. He and others say the cap set in 1997 is outdated and even detrimental to safety.

BLUMENTHAL: So long as there is a cap on liability, the argument can be made that it's not cost-effective to impose real reforms, and that's why I'm pushing very strongly to lift that cap.

SUMMERS: Florida Senator Bill Nelson, the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, has introduced legislation that would more than double the current cap, bringing it from 200 million to 500 million. He says Congress should not allow crash victims and their families to suffer.

SENATOR BILL NELSON: Who's going to pay? Why should we artificially have a cap of 200 million? That's what the current law is and has been for a number of years.

SUMMERS: But the effort to lift the cap is caught between competing political forces. Some Democrats want to know where the money would come from and worry that the plan could tax Amtrak's budget. And many Republicans have a problem with the government-subsidized Amtrak system. In interviews, they portrayed it as a wasteful behemoth.

CONGRESSMAN JOHN MICA: We're operating a third-world rail system in the United States.

SUMMERS: Florida Congressman John Mica once chaired the House Transportation Committee.

MICA: The Northeast Corridor is a very valuable asset that we're sitting on, and Amtrak has a monopoly. They run it in a Soviet-style monopolistic manner.

SUMMERS: He's not the only Republican quick to criticize Amtrak. Alaska Congressman Don Young has said that instead of raising the caps, the focus should be on improving performance and safety.

CONGRESSMAN DON YOUNG: This is a government institution as far as money makes it run. We appropriate the money. And I'm right now thinking just we got too many lawyers in this country anyway, and they really make a living out of conflict. And is that going to bring the dead people back? No. Is it going to make those hurt better? No.

SUMMERS: Lawmakers have tried to lift the liability cap before. The boost to $500 million was proposed by California members after the 2008 Metrolink crash in Los Angeles killed 25 and injured more than 100. But that effort, like others before it, never made it out of the station. Juana Summers, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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