A 2008 train crash in the San Fernando valley drew national headlines for its grim toll: 25 killed, nearly 100 injured. It gained notoriety later when a federal investigation found that the train 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 Legislature, Florida taxpayers could be asked to pick up the tab for damages caused by Amtrak, even if the operator error was as egregious as the 2008 crash. "It's a horrible public policy," said Jamie Holland, a Jacksonville lawyer who specializes in rail. "It puts the Florida taxpayer on the hook."
Similar protections were 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.
An Amtrak attorney, Carol Licko, said the bill merely gives Amtrak the same liability protection along the SunRail corridor.
Amtrak "wanted to become part of the agreement (between CSX and Florida)," Licko said. "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 (HB 599) 99-17. It now heads to the Senate for approval. Only Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, spoke against the liability protection, saying it unfairly shifted the burden onto taxpayers.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, said there was no issue and that Kriseman was "making a mountain out of a molehill."
The larger bill deals mostly with having the state Department of Transportation hand over all of its wetlands money to the private mitigation banking industry, despite studies showing that most mitigation banks have done a poor job of restoring wetlands.
Pilon said he amended the bill when a lobbyist for Amtrak, Chris Dudley of Southern Strategy Group, proposed a section that let the state hold Amtrak harmless of any liability, regardless of whether the damages were caused by the "fault, failure, negligence, misconduct, nonfeasance or misfeasance" by Amtrak or its successors, officers and agents.
Liability is no small issue between Amtrak and CSX. Amtrak operates in 46 states, but it doesn't own the tracks it uses. Instead, it must pay to use them.
In Florida and the Southeast, that means much of the track used by Amtrak is owned by CSX. And because of liability protections, when things go wrong, the one that pays is Amtrak, which survives with the help of federal taxpayers.
According to a 2004 New York Times analysis, Amtrak paid more than $186 million since 1984 for accidents blamed entirely or mostly on others. In each instance, the analysis found, freight railroads such as CSX were accused of playing the major role, or at least a contributing role, in causing those accidents. When an Amtrak passenger train in 2002 jumped the tracks in Putnam County north of DeLand — killing four people and injuring 142 — Amtrak paid the damages. Yet investigators concluded that the CSX track had not been properly stabilized and that oversight of maintenance had been lax.
Wording that states Amtrak would be shielded even in crashes it causes was open to interpretation, Pilon acknowledged. But he said the intent of the bill was not to shift the liability from Amtrak to Florida taxpayers.
"It reads that way in the bill, but it simply reads that way," Pilon said. "If there's consternation about it, I'm sure the Senate will take care of it.
"But this is not to create any greater liability for the citizens."
The measure will likely draw the attention of state Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland. A vocal critic of the 2009 CSX deal, Dockery objected then partly because of her concern that other entities would want the same protection.
Pilon said that while the DOT worked with him on the wetlands section of the bill, it had been mum on the rail amendment. Calls to DOT spokesman Dick Kane weren't returned.
Few others have complained, Holland said, because, as Dockery made clear in 2009, it's a tough argument to make that it's fair to deny others what CSX already has.
"Once you cross that line, how do you say Amtrak doesn't deserve the same protection?" Holland said. "I call it the Amtrak me-too bill."
Correction: The California train crash where an engineer was found to be texting before he ran a red light and where train operators ultimately paid $200 million in claims happened in 2008 in the San Fernando Valley. An article and photos Sunday incorrectly attributed the details of the 2008 crash to another accident.