The Amtrak rail crash has reverberated across Queens with the deaths of a U.S. Naval Academy midshipman from Far Rockaway and a real estate executive who grew up in Douglaston. The engineer of the Northeast Corridor Train 188 lives in Forest Hills, but has not been seen in Queens as the National Transportation Safety Board investigates the accident on the heavily traveled route between New York and Washington.
One day after the derailment in Philadelphia killed eight people and injured more than 200, a House panel did the unthinkable: Republican members voted to slash about $260 million from Amtrak’s $1.4 billion annual budget and rejected Democratic requests for money to install speed control technology, which could have prevented the disastrous accident.
Not surprisingly, the action occurred after a bitter partisan clash, reflecting the deep divide between public transportation supporters on the two coasts and the drive-everywhere advocates in the rest of the country.
Forgotten amid the predictable political stalemate were the doomed train’s passengers and crew, who deserved some thoughtful deliberations about Amtrak safety rather than a rush to deny the struggling railroad a lifeline well before the facts of the crash are known.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner bristled when asked if the accident stemmed from a lack of funding for Amtrak. New York’s Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer accused him of “massive ignorance” about rail safety.
Queens has a vested interest in the viability of Amtrak, which controls the East River tunnels used by the Long Island Rail Road, owns part of the Sunnyside yards and runs its Boston-bound trains across Hell Gate Bridge in Astoria There have been several derailments in the tunnels, which have delayed legions of LIRR commuters and prompted the MTA to push unsucessfully for authority over the tubes.
But most importantly, it has been heartbreaking for the borough to lose two people to what may have been an avoidable catastrophe.
Whether the engineer is ultimately found to be at fault or not, it is irresponsible for Congress to deny funding to Amtrak for new safety technology that can save lives, including their own for colleagues from both sides of the aisle who ride the rails between Penn Station and Union Station.
And Congress must set a realistic deadline for the system to be fully installed so that Midshipman Justin Zemser, 20, and Laura Finamore, 47, will not have died in vain.