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Amtrak's FY2021 Request to Congress Has Vision

February 26, 2020

Amtrak's FY2021 request to Congress isn't afraid to outline a growth-oriented budget. But there's more to the railroad's vision than just numbers.

As we reported last week, Amtrak’s Fiscal Year 2021 Legislative General and Legislative Annual Report isn't afraid to outline a growth-oriented budget. But there's more to the railroad's vision than just numbers.

Budgeting for Growth

Amtrak's Legislative & Grant document includes a request for $2.34 billion for existing capital and operating needs, while introducing a new account to build-out new State-supported services:

  • National Network - $1.33 billion, including
    • Over $1 billion for NN equipment;
    • $4.9 million for Southwest Chief track improvements.
  • Northeast Corridor - $714 million for the Northeast Corridor
  • Corridor Development Program - $300 million - would allow Amtrak to cover “100% of the capital costs necessary to initiate new or additional services in high-potential corridors to encourage states and regions to grow passenger rail,” while sharing operating costs over a five-year period.

Importantly, the railroad identified the following critical equipment needs, above and beyond the authorized amounts:

  • Superliner and Amfleet II Replacement: $2.000B
  • Diesel Locomotive Replacement (base order plus options): Approx. $1.500B
  • Additional Fleet for New Corridors (for FY21-FY25 routes): $510M

Amtrak also recommended the following funding levels for other grant programs that support passenger rail:


Amtrak Request

FRA Fed-State Partnership for SOGR

$500 million


$325 million

FRA Restoration & Enhancement Grants

$20 million

FTA Capital Investment Grants

$2.9 billion


$1 billion

More Than Numbers

However, Amtrak’s legislative proposal is more than just a request for funding. It also includes several exciting policy proposals that provide a sneak peek for its surface transportation reauthorization proposal—including many which mirror proposals included in Rail Passengers blueprint for reauthorization. We’ve broken them into three broad categories:

Asterisk (*) denotes policy proposals that are similar to proposals in the Rail Passengers’ reauthorization blueprint.

Improving Existing Train Service

Long Distance Intercity Passenger Rail Working Group*

"Within 180 days of enactment, Amtrak shall convene a working group of states that currently have long distance service that shall meet annually on an appropriate schedule. Within one year of enactment, the working group shall produce a report on ways to improve long distance service and transmit the report to House and Senate authorizing committees, the USDOT, and major associations representing local officials, passengers, and other relevant stakeholders. At a minimum, the report shall consider and make recommendations on the following issues:

  • Host railroad challenges to improve long distance service, including freight train interference,
  • Anticipated fleet needs of long-distance trains,
  • Ways that communities can support efforts to improve long distance service, including station development and station host programs,
  • State programs, including grant programs and state DOT initiatives, that are available to support long-distance intercity passenger rail service, and
  • Quantifying the economic impact of long-distance service on communities and states served, and the economic impact of each route in its entirety."

Long-distance trains are some of the most difficult services to provide effective governmental oversight for, simply by the dint of the sheer number of states, counties, municipalities, and stakeholder groups they serve. However, with the right support, they also present the opportunity to build large and diverse coalitions spanning the nation. This is an important step in engaging those groups to build improved services, as well as repairing relationships that have been strained by comments from Amtrak leadership suggesting some routes should be eliminated.

While there will be plenty of room to debate over what a long-term vision should look like, convening this group is clearly the right choice.

Amtrak Preference Enforcement (The Rail Passenger Fairness Act)*

"Authorizes Amtrak to bring an action in U.S. District Court to enforce its right to preference over freight as codified in federal law (introduced in the U.S. Senate by Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois as S.2922, the Rail Passenger Fairness Act)."

Freight train interference—most commonly caused when Class I dispatchers place an Amtrak train on a siding so a freight train can slowly rumble by—is the largest cause of delay to Amtrak trains operating over host railroads, costing passengers one million minutes of delay in FY 2019. Because these interminable delays drive away passengers—especially first-timers—they are an existential threat to many long-distance routes and State-supported corridors. Rail Passengers is also asking Members of Congress to support S.2922.

Study on Changes in Freight Railroad Operating and Scheduling Practices*

"Within one year after enactment, the Surface Transportation Board (STB) shall provide a report to its Authorizing Committees on the impact on Amtrak, commuter railroads and freight rail shippers of changes in freight railroad operating and scheduling practices as a result of Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR)."

One of the great misnomers in modern railroading is “Precision Scheduled Railroading.” The name implies interlocking systems providing sophisticated levels of precise train movements, turning railyards into Swiss timepieces. Too often, however, it simply means longer trains and fewer human workers. That reduces network fluidity and increases the incentive to put a relatively short passenger train on a siding so a train that is one, two, or even three miles long can roll through. Rail Passengers applauds Amtrak’s proposal to tackle this issue head on.

Launching New Train Service

Process Improvements for Host Railroad Access for Additional Trains/Routes*

"Recognizes the Surface Transportation Board’s (STB) authority to price access, requiring the STB to take into account any previous or proposed rail capacity investments made by or on behalf of Amtrak; authorizes the STB to determine terms for Amtrak’s access to host railroads; and provides access for additional trains suspended or discontinued within five years prior to the filing of Amtrak’s application to resume operations. Where the STB finds additional trains would impair unreasonably freight transportation, it should be directed to conduct an independent assessment, using STB-determined criteria and processes, to determine what capital improvements funded by or on behalf of Amtrak are necessary to mitigate the unreasonable impairment."

As anyone working to bring a new train service online in their community can tell you, oftentimes the biggest obstacle to introducing a new service is the price tag a Class I railroad will put on one measly roundtrip slot per day. For the Gulf Coast Rail restoration campaign, CSX told the three states involved that it would cost $2 billion. That is the equivalent of the value of CSX’s total annual capital expenditure program...or what it cost NASA to put a rover on the surface of Mars some 139 million miles from Earth!

It is critical that host railroads are fairly compensated for access to their infrastructure. However, host railroads should not be allowed to circumvent the legal requirement that they accommodate additional Amtrak trains unless doing so would “impair unreasonably freight transportation” by quoting a ludicrous cost of access that has no basis in reality. We believe the STB is well positioned to broker a fair compromise between the needs of the three parties—freight railroads, Amtrak, and the American public.

Rail-Airport Connections

"Eliminate red tape around the usage of the Airline Passenger Facility Charges for passenger rail, expanding eligibility to projects to construct or improve a rail line, or a passenger rail or intermodal station, that is on airport property, or within two miles of airport property if frequent shuttle service is to be provided for airline passengers and employees using the rail line or station."

This is a no-brainer for anyone who’s traveled abroad in Europe or Asia, where countries have left us far, far behind in developing efficient air-rail connections capable of smoothly transferring passengers from city centers to airport terminals. It’s cheaper and quicker than a cab ride!

Enhanced Funding and Financing

Passenger Rail Trust Fund*

"Establish in the U.S. Treasury a new trust fund to be known as the ‘Passenger Rail Trust Fund’ consisting of such amounts provided from the larger Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act. This trust fund, further supplemented by the annual discretionary appropriations process as necessary, would support intercity passenger rail programs as authorized in this Act, as well as new commuter rail programs. The Passenger Rail Trust Fund would cover the capital costs for the NEC and National Network, while leaving the operating costs for the annual discretionary appropriations process."

“Predictable, dedicated funding” has been a holy grail for U.S. passenger trains for decades. If we are to see any real transformation in the way Americans travel outside the northeast while also addressing the billions in maintenance and investment backlog of the NEC, we will need to expand passenger rail funding beyond a 12-month horizon and extract it from the increasingly dysfunctional year-to-year Congressional budget cycle.

Flexing General Revenues Authorized for Highway Trust Fund*

"Authorize states to flex the funding they receive from the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) highway account for intercity passenger rail capital projects up to the portion of funding they receive that equals the percentage of HTF funding that is provided from general revenues or borrowing."

Since 2008, Congress has transferred $140 billion in general taxpayer dollars to subsidize the Highway Trust Fund—but we never stop hearing how Amtrak can’t make a profit!

This proposal is simple: states should get to choose how to invest any general fund dollars transferred into the HTF, whether it’s a new overpass or an upgrade to a commuter rail service.

Passenger-Freight Railroad Shared Benefit Tax Credit*

"Establish a new income tax credit in order to encourage investment in capital projects that benefit both intercity passenger rail and any freight railroad, including Class Is. The tax credit would be claimed by the freight railroad and cannot exceed $10,000,000 per railroad per year."

Amtrak only owns 3% of the 21,400 route-miles traveled by its trains. Unlocking a way to leverage Public Private Partnerships to increase investment in these shared corridors is a practical step lawmakers can take to upgrade shared-use corridors in the U.S., simultaneously improving our freight capabilities and passenger networks.