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House Appropriators: It's National Or Nothing

June 4, 2019

Lawmakers Monday Offer Strong Language Backing Long-Distance Trains, Station Agents, Private Cars

by Jim Mathews, President and CEO

House Appropriators used report language accompanying their planned Tuesday markup of the Fiscal 2020 Transportation-HUD money bill to chastise Amtrak for ignoring congressional intent on customer-facing issues like station agents and long-distance trains, and strongly supported maintaining a truly national long-distance network that improves transportation options for rural areas and serves stations staffed with station agents. Lawmakers also faulted the Dept. of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration for foot-dragging on grants, for adding conditions contrary to congressional direction, and for setting up new Amtrak grant conditions that would give FRA outsize influence in Amtrak’s capital decisions.

Reinforcing support for a truly national system, appropriators wrote that "the Committee strongly reminds Amtrak that section 24701 of title 49, United States Code, requires Amtrak to operate a national passenger rail system. Further, the Committee directs Amtrak to seek any potential changes to the National Network through the reauthorization of the FAST Act, and urges Amtrak to ensure any such proposals also increase ridership in rural areas and improve service for long-distance customers.”

Appropriators singled out the notion of potentially replacing long-distance trains with a series of corridor trains for particular criticism, echoing Rail Passengers’ concerns that well-intentioned moves to add service to under-served or unserved areas “could have unintended consequences for long-distance customers, especially in rural and small communities where passenger rail serves as an important mobility option and economic driver.”

Appropriators directed Amtrak to “conduct comprehensive outreach and consultation” with a whole range of stakeholders, including “passenger rail organizations,” noting that Amtrak “must engage in an open and transparent process” which takes into account anyone who might be affected by changes, for good or ill.

Lawmakers repeated that theme of transparency throughout the report. The drafters made a point of highlighting the need for better communication and transparency, not only in individual provisions – such as those dealing with station agents or charter moves – but going so far as to create a separate report section headed “Communication With Stakeholders.”

In that section the report drafters said that they recognize that Amtrak is trying to boost revenues, minimize operating losses and modernize the passenger experience, things which we as Rail Passengers all support.

“However, the Committee is concerned that Amtrak continues to make and implement changes to operations and services without providing the public or its employees adequate time to understand proposed changes and provide feedback," the report said. "Amtrak has made changes to policies and procedures relating to charter trains, private cars, station agents, call centers, food and beverage service, and law enforcement, all of which have impacts on its ridership, employees, and communities. Therefore, the Committee directs Amtrak to increase engagement with customers, employees, stakeholders, and the public on proposals to change operations and services, including providing an opportunity to comment on policies prior to finalizing decisions.”

Rail Passengers has been given opportunities to comment on various proposals from Amtrak in the past and looks forward to a new level of engagement consistent with Congress’ intent.

House Appropriations Committee members also strongly rebuked the Trump Administration for its plans to recast the Restoration and Enhancement Grants program as a way to gut the National Network and to force states to shoulder more of the burden of paying for intercity passenger rail: “The Committee rejects this proposal and provides strong funding for Amtrak to continue to provide service through long-distance and state-supported routes.”

In addition, legislators made their intention crystal clear that money be spent to restore station agents.

“The Committee directs Amtrak to provide a station agent in each Amtrak station that had a ticket agent position eliminated in fiscal year 2018. Station agents assist passengers with their intercity passenger rail travel, conduct the sale of tickets, provide customer service during all hours that a station is open, and perform building maintenance duties. Amtrak is directed to improve communication and collaboration with local partners and take into consideration the unique needs of each community, including impacts to local jobs, when making decisions related to the staffing of Amtrak stations.”

Appropriators also took up the cause of charter operators and private-car owners who have seen their businesses drastically hurt by Amtrak’s restrictions and significant price hikes on charters, private varnish and special moves.

The report said the Committee “remains concerned” with the way Amtrak handled implementing and communicating its guidelines last year for these cars, noting that Amtrak “does not typically inform private car owners when a private car caused a delay to an Amtrak train” – one of Amtrak’s main assertions justifying its crackdown on these cars. Legislators want Amtrak to develop a mechanism to let private-car owners know when this happens so that they can “improve their operations and processes” and potentially improve their access to Amtrak’s system. The Committee members directed Amtrak to continually review and evaluate locations and trains to see whether they can add private-car moves, to update that list, and to make sure the car owners have the most up-to-date list.

They also took aim at Amtrak’s price hikes in the absence of solid analysis, a criticism that Amtrak’s Inspector General leveled as well.

“The Committee agrees with the Inspector General’s conclusions that Amtrak cannot accurately assess and make informed decisions about the private car program until Amtrak properly identifies the costs of the program. These conclusions are particularly concerning considering that Amtrak implemented two price increases for the private car program prior to the report’s release,” the report said. “The Committee directs Amtrak to engage with private car owners and associations on the identified costs, the analysis of recent price increases, the reductions in locations and trains eligible for private car moves, and any new potential revised pricing. The Committee directs Amtrak to submit a report to the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations within 90 days of enactment of this Act detailing its plan to standardize the cost and revenue analysis for the private car program. Further, Amtrak is directed to include an updated report on charter train and private car policies in Amtrak’s fiscal year 2021 budget justification.”

Elsewhere in the report, lawmakers also shared their disappointment with DOT and FRA.

“The Committee remains concerned with the Department’s slow pace in executing FRA’s competitive grant programs. The Committee notes with disappointment that FRA has failed to select projects for three competitive grant programs with more than $640,000,000 in fiscal year 2017 and fiscal year 2018 appropriated funding available. To date, FRA has also failed to issue a single Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) for four competitive grant programs with $670,000,000 in fiscal year 2019 appropriated funding available. The Committee recognizes that competitive grant programs require dedicated staff to issue NOFOs, review applications, and select projects for awards. Therefore, the Committee recommendation provides $1,500,000 for the Office of Railroad Policy and Development to hire additional staff to support the review, selection, and project management oversight of competitive grants. FRA shall deliver a report to the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations within 120 days of enactment of this Act detailing staffing and hiring plans for fiscal year 2020 to support this work."

The report accompanying the measure was released today, in advance of Tuesday's planned markup. We first reported on the lawmakers' spending plan last month, where we also asked you to take personal action with us to support the measure because it's good news for passenger-rail advocates.