NEW YORK — U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer accused House Speaker John Boehner of "massive ignorance" about rail safety on Friday and announced another push to get Congress to pay for train safety technology and infrastructure improvements in the wake of Amtrak's deadly derailment.
Joined by his fellow rail safety advocate, Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, the New York Democrat lambasted his congressional colleagues and federal rail officials for delaying installation of an advanced electronic system for keeping trains from speeding, called positive train control, on the track where the accident occurred. They urged Congress to address Amtrak's $21 billion state of good repair backlog and called for speedy installation of the new technology.
The senators also want to make rail grade crossings safer, add inward and outward-facing to monitor train engineers, and invest in rail infrastructure to improve tracks, signals, cars and more outdated technology.
"Every passenger boarding Amtrak today is only one human error away from injury or death," Blumenthal said.
On Thursday, Boehner, R-Ohio, ridiculed a reporter for asking whether the crash in Philadelphia on Tuesday night was caused by a lack of federal funds for Amtrak. The railroad is an easy target for politicians because large swaths of the nation don't have Amtrak, which is heavily used in the Northeast, Schumer said.
"Speaker Boehner speaks with massive ignorance," Schumer said as he stood in front of Penn Station, Amtrak's New York City hub. "Amtrak has been robbing Peter to pay Paul. ... They don't have enough money, plain and simple. Because Congress has cut it."
A spokesman for Boehner criticized Schumer's remarks.
"Instead of playing politics in the wake of this tragedy, the senator ought to focus on building a coalition in the Senate to advance the responsible, bipartisan House-passed Amtrak reform bill that paves the way for important upgrades to the Northeast Corridor," spokesman Kevin Smith said.
Federal investigators have said the train was traveling 106 miles per hour before hitting a curve where the speed limit is 50 mph. Positive train control would have prevented the tragedy because the train never would have been able to travel at that speed, Schumer said.
Amtrak President and CEO Joseph Boardman has said the new system was installed on the tracks in the area but was not in use because more testing was needed.
"We cannot continue to make excuses for relying on our outdated rail infrastructure," Schumer said.
The Republican-run House Appropriations Committee voted the day after the crash to cut Amtrak's budget for next year to $1.1 billion, a $251 million reduction. The panel also voted down a Democratic effort to boost federal funds for the railroad by more than $1 billion, including extra money for the busy Northeast Corridor, where the derailment occurred.
"They come from their little parochial areas," Schumer said of Congress. "Every year I have to fight them. They want to take money away from mass transit."
In response, Republican congressional aides said:
— A spending bill that passed the House on Wednesday cut no dollars from rail safety programs.
— The bipartisan Amtrak bill the House passed in March — which the White House supports — would keep Northeast Amtrak funding in the Northeast and allow for important upgrades and improvements.
— While Democrats immediately sought to make the wreck an issue to fund positive train control, a 2012 report from the Amtrak Office of Inspector General stated that "the most serious challenge" to implementing PTC is acquiring radio bandwidth (rather than a lack of funding).
— Additionally, that IG report also puts the responsibility for a potential funding shortage on Amtrak, saying "Amtrak did not include all of the funds it needs to implement PTC in either its 5-year financial plan or its FY 2013 legislative and grant request to Congress."
Associated Press writer Alan Fram in Washington contributed to this report.