Rescuers work around the derailed carriages of an Amtrak train in Philadelphia on Wednesday.
Rescuers work around the derailed carriages of an Amtrak train in Philadelphia on Wednesday. - 
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Ride an Amtrak train from Washington, D.C., to New York, and you’ll notice a lot of clickety-clacking.  It’s not a smooth ride. In fact, Amtrak says it has a $52 billion maintenance backlog on its Northeast Corridor.

But Congress won't help much with that.

“There was a lot of hand wringing, where they said, 'We all know this is inadequate, but there’s nothing much we can do,' ” says Sean Jeans-Gail, a spokesman for the National Association of Railroad Passengers, who attended the House Appropriations Committee hearing on Amtrak funding today.

The committee members said their hands were tied by spending caps.

So, is Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor safe?

“I would characterize it as safe," says Joseph Sussman, a professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering at MIT.  “But there’s also the question of what quality of service is offered.”

For instance, trains are late if they have to slow down to go over rough track. Sussman would like to see not just track maintenance, but more sections of track good enough for high-speed rail.  If you wanted to run high-speed trains along the whole Northeast Corridor, you’d have to spend billions.

“You’d need to invest in it from one end to the other," says Mark Burton, a professor of transportation and economics at the University of Tennessee. "There would almost certainly be no section of track that was unaffected. ”

The entire proposed 2016 budget for Amtrak in today’s House bill?  Just over $1 billion, which is $262 million less than this year.