Tuesday night’s derailment of an Amtrak train outside Philadelphia is putting a spotlight on the government-subsidized passenger line’s aging infrastructure and the ongoing debate over the future of rail service – and the degree to which those have become partisan issues.

The accident, which killed at least seven people and injured dozens more, had Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee calling for restoration of $1.31 billion in passenger rail funding that Republican budget hawks wanted to cut.

“It’s a battle that has been waged for years,” said former Sen. Al D’Amato, R-New York. “Many of the Republican areas, the South, the West, they have little if any need [for passenger rail] so consequently they are more reluctant to vote for funding.”

Amtrak operates as a for-profit corporation, but it survives on hotly-debated federal and state subsidies. President Nixon supported it in 1970 as a means to maintain private rail service. More recently, however, Amtrak has increasingly become a target of Republican budget hawks.

In the last bill to reauthorize federal support for passenger rail, which passed in the House in March, all 101 of the “no” votes were Republicans.

Two possible presidential candidates, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker have actively opposed recent rail improvements for their states as a waste of taxpayer dollars.

The idea of privatizing Amtrak has become a rallying point for Republicans in presidential elections.

President Obama, on the other hand, wanted to make high-speed rail expansion one of his signature accomplishments. Despite $11 billion in spending since 2009, according to The New York Times, the initiative has stalled, in large part due to resistance from Republican governors.

– Bloomberg News

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