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TRUMPadelphia: The Amtrak crash and the infrastructure bill

Aubrey Whelan, Staff Writer

Updated: Tuesday, December 19, 2017, 11:26 AM

Cars from an Amtrak train that derailed lie spilled onto Interstate 5, Monday, Dec. 18, 2017, in DuPont, Wash. The Amtrak train making the first-ever run along a faster new route hurtled off the overpass Monday near Tacoma and spilled some of its cars onto the highway below, killing several people, authorities said. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times via AP)

Good morning, pals. There’s a robot Trump in Disney World, a tax bill about to pass Congress and an infrastructure bill on the horizon that the president is highlighting in the wake of a devastating Amtrak crash.

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Aubrey Whelan

What’s at stake

An Amtrak train crashed in Washington state yesterday, killing at least three people. The images from the site are horrific, the interviews with survivors even more so, and, as it’s early days, it’s still unclear what exactly caused the crash, though investigators have determined the train was speeding.

President Trump, on Twitter, is using the opportunity to plug his $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which is supposed to be rolled out next month after some abortive first attempts this year. (Remember Infrastructure Week? You probably don’t, because that’s the week James Comey testified in Congress.)

The local angle

Two years ago, a speeding Amtrak train careened off a section of tracks in Philly’s Port Richmond neighborhood, killing eight and injuring hundreds. Last year, a crash in Chester killed two railroad workers and injured 39 passengers. The crashes have sparked an ongoing conversation about rail safety in the region, and led to some disturbing conclusions from experts.

The 2015 derailment, investigators concluded, could have been prevented if a speed control system had been installed on the Port Richmond tracks. That system has already been installed on the line where the Washington train crashed — but it won’t be turned on until next year.

What’s ahead

That brings us to whether Trump’s infrastructure plan applies at all here. The Washington crash happened on a brand-new stretch of tracks, paid for by stimulus funds from 2009. And Trump, judging by his policy priorities so far, has shown little commitment with railways in the first place.

His proposed budget, released in March, advocated for cutting federal funds to Amtrak’s long-distance lines (which, in fairness, would affect neither Philly Northeast Corridor nor the Washington line), and would also bar the Federal Transit Administration from funding new transit projects. He’s rolled back a proposed regulation that would have required railroad companies to test employees for sleep apnea, a factor in the New Jersey Transit crash in Hoboken last year. In July, local transportation officials said a plan for rail improvements in the region is still waiting on word from the feds about whether they’d be able to fund it.

And the infrastructure plan itself is still mostly talking points, said Erick Guerra, a city planning professor at Penn: “The substance of the plan is rhetoric, and then slashing a few programs and agencies,” he said. “I haven’t seen very much evidence that he thinks very thoughtfully about these issues, other than saying, ‘We have the worst infrastructure and we need the best infrastructure.'” And, because it’s 2017 and literally nothing is a bipartisan issue anymore, it’s unclear whether this plan even gets through Congress.

What they’re saying

“From the beginning, America has been defined by its people.” — The opening line from the recently-unveiled Donald Trump animatronic in Disney World’s Hall of Presidents, dashing my hopes for a robot that just yelled Trump tweets while the Lincoln robot tried to deliver the Gettysburg Address. Go bland or go home, I guess.

“I was an easy pickup. Very easy pickup. And a couple, two, three other Democrats would have been easy pickups, if they had just made an effort.” — Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, saying that if Republicans had tried harder to reach across the aisle, they might have gotten a few Democrats on board with their deeply unpopular tax bill.

“Let’s get on with the real issues that are facing people of this country right now, and I don’t think that the President ought to resign at this point.” newly-elected Alabama Sen. Doug Jones, who defeated Republican Roy Moore in a nail-biter last week, already breaking with some of his Democratic colleagues in the Senate who have called for Trump to resign over the allegations of sexual harassment that surfaced during the campaign.

In other news… After binge-watching Westworld last year, I have decided that every single animatronic on the planet, including those in Philly’s beloved Charles Dickens Christmas extravaganza, is an eldritch abomination. (Yeah, I said it.) But Donald Trump’s Hall of Presidents robot just took on a starring role in Twitter’s nightmares. The House is voting on the revamped GOP tax bill today. Here’s a good graphic from the New York Times on what’s changed. And here’s an analysis from the Tax Policy Center, concluding that the plan doesn’t live up to Trump’s promise of “massive tax cuts” for the middle class. White House lawyers are meeting with Robert Mueller’s team this week about the status of the Russia investigation, the Washington Post reports, but it’s likely the investigation could stretch on for another year. PA state Sen. Daylin Leach is “taking a step back” from his campaign after allegations he engaged in inappropriate sexual talk and unwelcome touching with staffers surfaced in the Inquirer this weekend. What I’m reading My colleague Jon Tamari wrote about the Philly residents charged in a sweeping federal trial over the protests at President Trump’s inauguration. Please scream with me over this New York Times report about the Pentagon’s SECRET UFO PROGRAM, which has been criminally buried in the relentless political news cycle. My colleague Jeff Gammage wrote about Philly’s undocumented immigrants, and the ways, big and small, that life has changed for them a year into the Trump presidency. A non-political palate cleanser

My favorite Inquirer tradition is here: our staff’s annual list of book recommendations. My colleagues have impeccable taste and few of my faves are on here (but if you read one thing this year, let it be Lincoln in the Bardo).

Aubrey Whelan, Staff Writer

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