Thomas the Tank Engine is feeling flush.
As early as next year, the US will begin funding dozens of railway projects across the country, totaling $1.4 billion in federal grants. But while many agree US railroads desperately need refurbishing, some question why federal dollars should support a highly privatized industry.
All the Livelong Day
In addition to increasing capacity on freight and passenger lines, the funding addresses safety concerns. In 2022, the Federal Railway Administration recorded roughly 1,200 derailments — that’s three a day. While most happen in railyards and often are not a big deal, some are catastrophic.
This February, a Norfolk Southern train went off the tracks in East Palestine, Ohio, spilling toxic chemicals into the air, soil, and water, and forcing the evacuation of residents within a 1-mile radius from the crash site. A month later, another Norfolk Southern train derailed in Springfield, Ohio, further intensifying scrutiny on safety:
- Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told The Wall Street Journal part of the railway failures can be attributed to underinvestment. As part of the monumental $1 trillion infrastructure bill signed by President Joe Biden in 2021, the $1.4 billion in federal grants will go toward 70 projects in 35 states and the District of Columbia.
- Some projects include $178 million to help Amtrack restore passenger service between Mobile, Alabama, and New Orleans; $59 million for Conrail to replace the Point-No-Point Bridge over the Passaic River in New Jersey; and $30 million for track improvements on the Paducah & Louisville Railway.
Keep on chugging: Political conservatives have generally seen railways as taxpayer-sponsored money pits. Just this summer, House Republicans proposed cutting Amtrak’s 2024 funding by 65%, or $1.6 billion.
Then again, taxpayers are on the hook for evacuations and cleanups when things go off the rails. In response to the Norfolk Southern derailments, senators from Ohio and Pennsylvania introduced a bi-partisan bill to strengthen safety procedures. In the past, that sort of response wouldn’t get strong support from both sides of the political tracks.