Amtrak reorganization scrutinized by House Transportation Committee

Written By Sean Jeans Gail

The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held a hearing today to examine Amtrak’s ongoing structural reorganization intended to improve the performance and accountability of the railroad, part of a series held by the committee over the past few months to examine Amtrak and passenger rail.

Chairman John Mica (R-FL) accused Amtrak of lagging behind other modes in minimizing the public subsidy required to operate. Critics of these hearings have questioned why so much time is being spent on Amtrak when the railroad receives such a tiny fraction of total government spending on transportation, a point to which Mica appeared sensitive.

“Everybody's focused on the fiscal cliff, said Mica. “Sometimes people give me a hard time for focusing on Amtrak. But we have put $1.4 billion into Amtrak in the past year. We do have a responsibility for taxpayer dollars.”

However, Mica did explicitly acknowledge the necessity of federal spending on Amtrak and passenger rail, seeming to soften some of his rhetoric on privatization of passenger rail in the U.S.

Amtrak’s President Joseph Boardman, meanwhile, came out with a strong defense of the passenger railroad’s performance:

“While there are still plenty of challenges ahead, the basics for success are definitely here, and Amtrak is doing well. We just set the ninth ridership record in the last ten years, and we posted record ticket revenues, too. We’ve broken out of the narrow band of 18-20 million riders that our company lived in for decades, and we carried 31.2 million last year. Better ridership has helped drive an improved financial performance, and if you look at our operating support numbers in terms of constant value, in FY 2013 Amtrak will be getting by with about half as much Federal support as it had in 2004."

While Mica may have been looking for ammunition from Amtrak’s Inspector General Ted Alves, the man in charge of oversight of Amtrak was largely upbeat in his testimony before the committee.

“Overall, Amtrak has generally taken positive action on our recommendations; the company has implemented many of them, and is in the process of addressing others,” said Alves.

The Inspector General did identify several areas where Amtrak could continue to improve, including sustaining and fully implementing the railroad’s ongoing strategic initiatives, and bringing improvements seen in the mechanical maintenance processes for the Acela fleet to bear on Amtrak’s conventional equipment, thereby raising the availability and reliability of equipment on all its business lines.

James Stem, the National Legislative Director for the United Transportation Union, also spoke before the committee, saying Amtrak has earned additional funding support of Congress by providing a necessary service to the public in a safe and efficient manner.

“Americans want a national intercity rail passenger network and Amtrak is uniquely able to fill that need,” said Stem. “Highways and commercial aviation will not alone meet the nation’s future passenger transportation needs and demands… Congress should recognize that intercity passenger service requires public subsidies, just as our airline and bus partners do.”

Mica has two more hearings on passenger rail this year: Thursday, December 6, focusing on the high-speed intercity rail program; and Thursday, December 13, on the Northeast Corridor.