Hearing Poses Question: Fix-it-first or National-or-nothing?
June 8, 2023
The new-look House Transportation & Infrastructure Subcommittee on Rail held its first Amtrak hearing this week, presenting two radically different perspectives on the passenger rail program enacted by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL).
Chairman Troy Nehls (R-TX) opened the hearing by focusing on onboard and station security, bonuses given to Amtrak executives, and arguments made by freight railroads that carrying passenger trains interferes with their freight services. While acknowledging Amtrak was achieving record ridership and revenue, Chairman Nehls argued that Amtrak must focus on shoring up service on existing corridor rather than looking to add new cities to its network.
“Amtrak’s losses arise almost entirely from its National Network and long-distance routes,” said Chairman Nehls. “Rather than focusing on attracting riders to existing routes, Amtrak now seeks to expand this network, risking a greater expense to the taxpayer. Some of these new routes will even require the states to cover costs and losses.”
Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA), Ranking Member of the full committee, countered that adding new passenger rail corridors is central to the BIL’s core mission.
“[BIL] funding is not only intended to improve rail service, but to expand it,” said Rep. Larsen. “The demand for more frequent and more reliable passenger rail is real. Cities and counties across the nation want increased access to the national passenger rail network. They know that this will help their towns grow and thrive and provide a greener way to move people.”
Rail Passengers Association Speaks Up for Network Expansion
Following a meeting with Rail Passengers staff and advocates ahead of the hearing, Chairman Nehls’ office agreed to submit a statement from Rail Passengers Association CEO Jim Mathews to the hearing’s official record. Our statement emphasized how eagerly states across the U.S. had submitted applications to the program, and the necessity for a successful rail program to benefit all Americans:
"When facing down cuts to Amtrak’s National Network, former Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas famously rallied her Republican colleagues with the motto 'National or Nothing.' Thanks to strong Congressional leadership and the long-term policy and financial commitment expressed in the Investment in Infrastructure and Jobs Act (IIJA), leaders from both sides of the aisle have outlined a vision for growing our passenger rail network and ensuring this growth does not require one American getting better service at the expense of another American’s train.
"Congress has finally provided enough funds to do more than simply study improvements. They wisely structured those rail investments to ensure that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the states are able to partner with Amtrak to meet locally identified needs. We believe this will also ensure that Amtrak is focused on improving efficiency and service in ways that states and localities believe is best.
"The need for more robust rail infrastructure is real. We have seen an unprecedented response from local governments to the FRA’s request for submissions to the Corridor Identification Program — from coast to coast, from America’s Heartland, from Red States and Blue States. We are particularly heartened by the response from the Southeastern U.S. and Sunbelt, which has seen a disproportionate level of population growth over the past 50 years. Texas, Oklahoma, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, and the Commonwealth of Virginia have all been active participants in the IIJA’s passenger rail programs, to name just a few. Passenger trains have an important role to play in helping these metropolitan regions accommodate economic and population growth, while simultaneously ensuring that rural Americans continue to have access to essential services.
"Amtrak was conceived as a service to the nation, not just a train in one part of the country. This is why Amtrak’s National Network, with its 15 long-distance routes connecting a series of state-supported services, is such an essential transportation service to the 40 percent of the nation’s small and rural communities that it serves, establishing a vital link between Small Town and Big City America."
We highlighted an example of a relatively simple improvement in the pipeline made possible by the BIL's vision and commitment: increasing service from the current three times weekly to a daily train on the route of the Sunset Limited and Texas Eagle between California and Illinois. This simple step is among several Amtrak is proposing in the first round of IIJA-enabled service improvements, and Rail Passengers' economic-benefits modeling suggests just including those additional trains could generate as much as $2.4 billion over 10 years in visitor spending in hotels, restaurants, and retail, avoided road maintenance, and supported jobs — $144 million each year in Texas alone, and some $239 million each year to the eight states served. That’s at least four times as much as we would spend each year to operate it.
Amtrak Spotlights Pipeline of Upgrades to the Network
Ahead of the hearing, Amtrak outlined several projects enabled by BIL funds that will provide tangible, near-term upgrades for America’s passengers.
The majority of Amtrak’s applications are on the Northeast Corridor to address state of good repair projects for bridges and tunnels. In its press release, Amtrak listed grant applications totaling $7.3 billion for the Federal-State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail Program (FSP-NEC Program):
-- B&P Tunnel Replacement (Frederick Douglass Tunnel) Program
-- East River Tunnel Rehabilitation Project
-- Susquehanna River Rail Bridge Project
-- Connecticut River Bridge Replacement Project
-- Springfield Line: Connecticut River Bridge Replacement Project
-- Bush River Bridge Replacement Program
-- Gunpowder River Bridge Replacement Program
-- Pelham Bay Bridge Replacement Project
-- Infrastructure Renewal and Speed Improvement Program (Washington, DC to New Jersey)
-- Multiple Cardinal and Sunset Limited service improvements
-- Increase service to operate daily – up from 3x/week currently (Corridor ID Program)
-- Increase Cardinal train speeds and reduce travel times between Indianapolis and Dyer, Ind.
-- Sunset Limited return to Phoenix
-- Southwest Chief signal modernization between Colorado and New Mexico
-- Empire Builder rail enhancements in Montana
-- I-20 Crescent service extension from Mississippi through Louisiana to Texas
-- Construction of new Crystal City station that would add service to Arlington, Va.
Freight Railroads Strike Back
It’s been a rough year for U.S. freight railroads, with a series of high-profile derailments leading to a bipartisan push for legislation that would enact stricter safety regulations and oversight.
This week’s hearing provided an opportunity for freight railroads to hit out against Amtrak and passenger trains, rallying their allies in Congress to undermine the foundational compromise on which Amtrak was established.
Rep. Eric Burlison (R-MO) introduced the Freights First Act to eliminate Amtrak’s legal right to preferential dispatching within 50 miles of a port or rail yard.
Rail Passengers will oppose this legislation, which undermines the ‘Grand Bargain’ they struck with the American taxpayer in 1971, in which we have agreed for each of the past 50 years to pay public money to relieve hosts of their common-carrier responsibilities in exchange for access to their tracks for a reasonable fee.
“While I can only speculate on the host railroads’ motives, the practical reality is that this would stop any American passenger-rail expansion in its tracks,” said Rail Passengers’ President & CEO Jim Mathews. “Unless the freight railroads are interested in resuming their obligations to operate passenger trains, this proposal is a nonstarter. The fact is, BIL investment provides a solution to improve both the passenger and freight rail network in the U.S. By leveraging public dollars to upgrade freight-owned rail corridors, we can create a more productive transportation network for passengers and shippers.”
"On behalf of Amtrak’s onboard service staff, I want to thank the Rail Passengers Association for honoring their hard work with this award. The past couple years have indeed been difficult for Amtrak onboard service staff – coping with furloughs and job insecurity, adapting to changing protocols and services, not to mention the unfortunate events such as a tragic derailment and a fatal shooting. Nevertheless, our dedicated members at Amtrak have handled these hurdles with the care, attention and diligence for which they’re known. We thank Rail Passengers for their acknowledgement of our members’ hard work and, as always, look forward to seeing you on the rails."
Arthur Maratea, TCU/IAM National President
December 21, 2021, on the Association awarding its 2021 Golden Spike Award to the Frontline Amtrak Employees.