Happening Now

Hard Work, Not A ‘Magic Wand,’ Will Save Rail

November 20, 2020

By Jim Mathews / President & CEO

I’ve heard a lot this past week from our members of all political persuasions who are ready to declare victory for passenger rail now that “Amtrak Joe” will be moving into the White House on January 20th. It is indeed a good thing that from the very top of the Executive Branch, we’ll have an Administration that understands the role that passenger rail plays in our economy and that it will play in our recovery.

But the breathless speculation I’ve heard from some corners about giant investments and a moon-shot rail program needs to be brought down to sobering reality. We all need to recognize that in some ways our battle for next year has become harder, not easier. And I’ll be calling on each of you to keep up the pressure you’ve applied since late this summer, reminding your Congressional representatives and Senators over and over again that passenger rail is important to you and your community.

Your Association is a member of the OneRail coalition in Washington, D.C., led by Anne Canby, whose transportation credentials are impeccable: former New Jersey Commissioner of Transportation, Delaware Secretary of Transportation and even Treasurer of Boston’s MBTA, as well as stints at the U.S. Dept. of Transportation. Anne and I co-hosted a webinar this week breaking down the work that is ahead of us for rail in the next Administration and Congress. I hope you’ll go give it a watch as you prepare to raise your voices again for passenger rail in the next cycle.

We also told you last week that the Biden-Harris transition team seems to be putting experienced professionals in place who will be ready to start executing a plan on day one. The team includes a deep bench of folks with a background in public transportation. These personnel choices make it clear that the incoming Biden Administration has a grander vision for its Department of Transportation than simply building more highway lanes and runways.

In their public statements, transportation advisers to the President-Elect demonstrate a clear understanding of the pressing needs faced by these systems, and the scale of relief needed to ensure their continued operations. That’s why Rail Passengers is committed to continuing our work with the Biden transition team through January, responding to requests for our policy proposals and for a short list of passenger rail projects that are ready to move quickly and worthy of funding.

All of these are encouraging signs.

But “Amtrak Joe” has no magic wand to wave over the U.S. Congress where the funding proposals that really count are formulated, especially in the U.S. Senate. Both the House and the Senate that will be seated in January will be nearly evenly split, which means that it will only take a small handful of legislators to grind everything to a halt. The Biden Administration can’t simply decree that we will spend $10 billion each year for five years on passenger rail, even if that’s what they – and the House of Representatives – would like to do.

Our work at Rail Passengers Association now must go into an even higher gear, and we have important fights ahead. The fight to require that Amtrak restore daily service systemwide. The fight to make sure Amtrak can do that without emptying its bank accounts. The fight for better and broader representation on the Amtrak Board of Directors. The fight to invest in passenger rail of all kinds to help our pandemic-battered economy recover.

Making progress on these and other issues will take sustained daily and weekly effort from all of us – your hardworking professional staff in D.C. and all of you speaking up for your town and your service. One phone call is not enough. One email is not enough.

During our webinar this week, I urged all of you to look past the hope of a President-Elect Joe Biden unilaterally solving all of our problems with Amtrak and passenger rail. Even with the most rail-friendly President in recent American history, we have work to do to educate the incoming Congress about the value of rail.

Your D.C. staff has invested our time and your money to develop tools to help make the case from a policy perspective, illustrating rail’s benefits with compelling economic data at a community level. And we will be working hard to reinforce the strong bi-partisan support we have developed in this most recent Congress with leaders and staffs of the key Committees.

The good news is we have a great story to tell. Our reports and data show that passenger rail and public transportation are truly economic engines in the communities they serve. And at a time when political and public anger has highlighted the emotional divide between so-called ‘Flyover Country’ and America’s urban megaregions, investment in a truly National Network of intercity passenger trains can be both literally and figuratively unifying.

But we will still need your continued support for our work. In this week’s webinar I encouraged all of you to use the resources we’ve created for you: the data sheets, the ridership reports, our economic-benefits studies, our one-page policy briefs, our automated campaign tools that help you compose messages or call offices. Use them to talk to your Mayors or your congressional district offices. It’s important for you to call and to write and to be heard over and over and over again, every week if you have to, to make sure that you deliver your message to your elected representatives in the House and the Senate.

Whether you’re calling them about daily service, new investment or dining cars, make sure to tell them “I live here, I vote here, I take these trains and this is important to me.” Members of Congress and their staffs need to hear about you and from you about how these issues affect you. We’re about to have a great ally in the incoming Administration. But we have allies on both sides of the Congressional aisle, too, and now is the time to get to work reminding them what’s at stake.