House committee rejects increased funding for Amtrak, hours after deadly derailment

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WASHINGTON (CNN) — As federal investigators rummaged through the debris of the Amtrak train that derailed less than 24 hours ago, the House Appropriations Committee voted Wednesday to reject increased funding for the rail service to make capital improvements.

Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pennsylvania, proposed a boost that was rejected by the Republican-led committee on a 30-21 vote as the panel marked up a transportation funding bill. Republicans argued that specific funding increases like one for Amtrak must be offset by cuts elsewhere.

That committee meeting, which had been previously scheduled, comes amid calls from Amtrak supporters to boost funding to improve the service’s aging infrastructure while budget hawks seek to reduce funding for the public rail service. A version of the bill approved by an appropriations subcommittee would queue up millions of dollars in funding cuts.

Now, that debate took place the morning after seven people died and hundreds more were hurt by the derailment Tuesday night. It was not immediately known what caused all of the train’s seven cars to derail. A spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board said they are exhausting all possible options, from human error to mechanical problems and more.

The Northeast Regional Train 188 was carrying 238 passengers and five crew members from Washington to New York when all seven of its cars derailed, a U.S. Department of Transportation representative told CNN Wednesday, adding that the engine and two cars were left standing upright, three cars were tipped on their sides, and one was nearly flipped over on its roof. The seventh one is “leaning hard,” they said.

Vice President Joe Biden, perhaps the most famous Amtrak fan in the country, issued a statement saying that “the victims could have been any one of our parents, children, or someone from one of our communities. Amtrak is like a second family to me as it is for so many other passengers.”

The House already in March approved legislation to authorize Amtrak to pump more money into its most popular portion, the Boston-to-Washington Northeast Corridor — though it has yet to muscle its way through the Senate.

Now the House’s appropriations panel is marking up a transportation funding fill that would reduce grants to Amtrak by $252 million — a drop of about 15 percent from last year’s $1.4 billion. The cut is in capital for Amtrak, which would pay for broader improvements; the bill leaves funding levels for safety and operations at last year’s levels.

Fattah had requested a bump to $2.4 billion for Amtrak, which President Barack Obama had sought in his budget.

Amtrak funding was also a prominent topic in a House transportation panel’s hearing Wednesday.

Democrats like Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon complained about those cuts, saying majority Republicans should be “cognizant of the real world out there, of what happened last night, of what the capital needs of Amtrak are, and will not engage in short-sighted budget cutting.”

Republicans also brought up the derailment, but in more general terms, saying it needs to be studied.

“It’s critical we find out exactly what happened out there and make sure we take the appropriate response to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Florida.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday on CNN’s “New Day” that investing more in transportation infrastructure “is a common sense” decision and said investing in Amtrak should not be a partisan issue.

“There is clearly more that can be done when we’re talking about a railway infrastructure that is decades-old,” Earnest said. “If there’s an opportunity for us to make further investments in our infrastructure that would better safeguard the traveling public, then those are investments that we should make.”

Opposition to funding cuts isn’t just coming from Democrats and some Republicans representing districts in the Northeast Corridor are pushing back against conservatives who want to cut funding to Amtrak and privatize the rail service.

Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Pennsylvania, said Congress should boost funding for Amtrak, rather than cutting into its budget.

“If we’re not investing in our safety for the Northeast Corridor, we’re not doing what we should be doing down here,” he said Wednesday morning on CNN. “We need to continue to invest in our passenger rail system…a critical piece of the economy in the Northeast part of the country.”

It is still unclear what caused the crash, though the derailment happened as the train rolled through a curve, which investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board were inspecting Wednesday morning. The FBI is also at the scene assisting investigators, though there is nothing to suggest a terrorism connection at this point, a law enforcement official told CNN.

Some of the most gruesome images from inside the train came from a former Democratic congressman, Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania, who was onboard one of the seven cars that derailed.

Murphy quickly tweeted images of injured passengers and first responders inside his overturned café car. He was not seriously injured, but his seatmate was knocked unconscious and was bleeding.

Sen. Tom Carper, a Democrat from Delaware, was also on the train but got off at a stop in his state before the train derailed in Philadelphia.

Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pennsylvania, chair of the House transportation committee, and his Republican colleague Jeff Denham who chairs the railroads subcommittee, released a statement Wednesday saying they were “saddened by the tragic accident.

U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster R-Pennsylvania, Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee Chairman Jeff Denham (R-California).

“Both the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Railroad Administration are on the scene, and while we don’t yet know many details, we need to know how this happened and ensure the safety of the system and the millions of Americans who rely on the Northeast Corridor,” they said in the statement.