A 2008 train crash in California’s San Fernando valley drew national headlines for its grim toll: 25 killed, more than 100 injured.
It gained notoriety later when a federal investigation found that the train’s engineer had run a red light after texting. Operators of the train paid $200 million to compensate the victims — the maximum under federal law but only half the total claims.
Under a bill advancing through the Florida Legislature, the state’s taxpayers could be asked to pick up the tab for damages caused by Amtrak even if the operator error was as egregious as in the 2008 crash.
“It’s a horrible public policy,” said Jamie Holland, a Jacksonville lawyer who specializes in railroad issues. “It puts the Florida taxpayer on the hook.”
A similar protection was awarded to CSX, the freight railroad operator, in 2009. Lawmakers made taxpayers liable for potential accidents caused by CSX on the 61-mile SunRail commuter line in Orlando.
The measure could extend Amtrak’s liability protection on rails it shares with Tri-Rail in South Florida. More than two decades ago, the state bought the tracks and rail corridor on which Amtrak and Tri-Rail trains run between Miami and Jupiter.
Amtrak “wanted to become part of the agreement [between CSX and Florida],” said Carol Licko, an Amtrak attorney. “What this does is require the state to buy insurance to cover accidents. All that Amtrak is asking for is to get covered in that insurance agreement.”
But while controversy stalked the CSX bill, no such outcry has been raised so far on the shielding of Amtrak.
On Thursday, the liability protection passed as part a larger House bill, 99-17. It now heads to the Senate for approval. Only Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, spoke against the liability protection,