Nancy Pelosi Amtrak
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., offered a motion Tuesday to boost funding for an automated train control system that could have prevented the deadly Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia. Reuters

House Democrats want to boost funding for an automated train control system that could have prevented the deadly Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia last week. Policymakers are offering a motion to authorize $750 million for the program as part of a surface transportation bill being voted on Tuesday, the Hill reported.

“Americans deserve better infrastructure that puts safety first,” Drew Hammill, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement.

The motion would increase federal funding for Positive Train Control (PTC) safety systems, which can override human error in commuter rail trains. Federal investigators said such a system could have kept Amtrak train 188 from accelerating past 100 mph -- more than twice the speed limit -- as it careened around a sharp curve in Philadelphia. The resulting derailment killed eight people and left more than 200 injured, including the train’s engineer and conductor.

The disaster highlighted grave deficiencies in Amtrak’s safety system. Congress required Amtrak and other U.S. rail companies to add PTC technology to their operations in 2008, but large swaths of commuter rail tracks are still awaiting upgrades despite a 2015 deadline. Just six weeks before the May 12 wreck, the Senate Commerce Committee approved a measure to push the compliance deadline to the end of 2020 -- a move supported by rail companies, who say the current deadline is impossible to meet.

PTC systems can prevent trains from crashing into other cars or running into construction zones by using GPS technology and computer systems to detect speed limits or upcoming obstacles. The technology can automatically slow or stop a train in the event its driver fails to do so.

Pelosi criticized House Republicans last week after a House appropriations subcommittee approved a bill to cut Amtrak’s budget by $251 million, to $1.14 billion for the coming fiscal year. “The Republicans have been very much against Amtrak for a very long time,” she said at a May 14 press conference.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, later dismissed the notion that Amtrak is suffering a funding shortage or that additional money could have prevented the Philadelphia derailment. “It’s not about funding,” he said last week. “The train was going twice the speed limit. Adequate funds were there. No money has been cut from rail safety.”