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In CA, high-speed rail partisans eye Washington crash

Traffic backs up on I-5 at the scene of an Amtrak train derailment. (Photo: Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA, via AP Images)

Although it might be regarded as an opportunity to score points against Gov. Jerry Brown’s beloved high-speed rail project, the train crash that killed at least three people Monday is drawing a muted response from both opponents and boosters – at least for the time being.

Amtrak Cascades Train 501, on its way from Seattle to Portland, Oregon, derailed southwest of Tacoma, and sent rail cars off a bridge onto the highway below. It was the maiden journey of a rail link that, if not quite a bullet train, was designed to provide fast travel times between the two major northwestern cities. The train was reportedly going 80 miles per hour when the accident occurred.

In an email to Capitol Weekly, Aaron Fukuda, co-chair of anti-bullet-train Citizens for California High-Speed Rail Accountability, said:

“At this point the cause of this tragedy is unknown.  I think it is best for our group to not provide a comment as we don’t want to utilize it for any efforts here in California when people lost loved ones and/or are standing by those they love as they struggle with injuries.”

Fukuda’s group has been caustic in earlier comments on the safety of passengers aboard the bullet train, however, declaring on its website:

“The California High-Speed Rail Authority will need to adopt comprehensive passenger security procedures and provide costly protection for the rail itself in urban, suburban, and rural environments. Future governors will surely place a priority on continually evaluating vulnerabilities and threats, and the state Legislature will have endless challenges getting funding for programs to protect the high-speed rail system from terrorist attacks, pranksters, fools, and suicides. Expect these programs to include unionized government employees and expensive technology, including drones.”

Annie Parker, spokeswoman for the California High-Speed Rail Authority, cited a number of built-in safety features, including Positive Train Control (PTC).

“Through PTC, train engineers receive continuous information about speed restrictions, work zones and other safety impacts. For example, the PTC system would alert an engineer approaching a crossing where the crossing arms are malfunctioning,” the Authority’s website says.

“With PTC, a train’s onboard computer displays safe-breaking distance based on speed, train length, weight and track curvature.

“PTC also restricts speed limits and serves as a failsafe system. If the engineer doesn’t respond, the PTC system takes over, thus preventing a train from running a red signal light or entering a stretch of track at an unsafe speed.”

PTC was not operating on Amtrak Cascades Train 501, but it would probably have prevented the accident if it had, investigators told reporters.

Amtrak trains are equipped with PTC, but the Washington State Department of Transportation said the necessary track-side sensors to enable it were not yet in place.

Democrats in general have supported fellow Democrat Brown’s project, but support is not unanimous.  Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, worries about the fiscal viability of the $64 billion project.

Private investment may put the project over the top, Newsom told the Los Angeles Times. “But absent something significant — and I mean, really significant — I can’t see supporting something that would come at such a high cost to other infrastructure,” Newsom said.  “I don’t see how we could go forward. There’s got to be a different financing plan. Without it, the math doesn’t add up.”

The two major parties differ on the project.  The 2016 California Democratic Party platform gives high-speed rail an endorsement, but it is less than full-throated:

“California Democrats are working to modernize our roads and transportation with strong and workable low-emission, zero-emission vehicle standards and strategies and infrastructure to reduce driving such as promoting smart growth, creating “complete streets,” teaching bicycle traffic skills, and improving transit, from local systems to high speed rail.”(Emphasis added.)

The Republicans are blunt. Their platform simply calls for “Ending federal support for California’s high-speed rail project.”


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