Happening Now

It’s Not About Trains, It’s About People

October 5, 2020

As furloughs begin, a poignant email reminds us all why we're fighting so hard.

By Jim Mathews / President & CEO

Whenever I have The Talk ™ with new volunteers or staff about what we do and why we do it, folks on the receiving end are often surprised when I tell them that it’s not about the trains, it’s about the people. But without the people – the passengers, the crews, the communities served and the lives made better – it’s just a giant model train set.

I got a note this afternoon and I have to say, it hurt to read it. It reminded me again of why we fight so hard for more trains and better trains, and that’s why I’m going to share it here with you. I’ll omit some details for privacy, but for our purposes I’ll call her Mrs. Smith. Her subject line was a gut punch: "It's Over, Isn't It?"

“In less than a month my husband will be furloughed. He is a assistant conductor for Amtrak out of [....] and has only been with them a little over a year. He is so disappointed and hurt that he has worked so hard for a company that cares so little of their employees. So now we file for unemployment and hope for the best when spring comes. Thank you for trying so hard to keep the long-distance trains from being cut and for fighting for the employees who were once essential and are being left in the dust now. I really do appreciate the work you do and hopefully this isn’t the end of long-distance trains in America.”

Mrs. Smith’s story is one that is going to be repeated during the next few days and weeks, roughly 2,000 times. And it’s going to hurt people and families each time.

Amtrak is cutting back daily service throughout the long-distance Network to only three times per week, which it claims it has to do to pinch pennies during the ridership declines brought on by the coronavirus crisis. As we’ve already seen from the dismal performance of the Silver Star and Silver Meteor after they went 3x in July, it’s likely that Amtrak won’t save as much as it thinks it will from this move – but the damage to Mrs. Smith’s family will be just as bad, all the same.

Last week, I spoke up for Amtrak’s front-line workers at a rally on Capitol Hill alongside Reps. Fitzpatrick (R-PA), Boyle (D-PA), Ryan (D-OH), Norcross (D-NJ) and Lynch (D-MA), as well as Transportation Communications Union Vice-President and National Legislative Director William DeCarlo and AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Dept. President Larry Willis. We all came together, Republicans, Democrats and others, to deliver the message that Amtrak’s workers are essential workers, and the service they provide is clearly an essential service. We also hoped to deliver a message to wavering lawmakers that the time to act is now.

House Transportation & Infrastructure Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) had worked with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to bypass stalled stimulus bill talks by developing a stand-alone bill that would have come up with rescue funds for the airline industry – and your Association has been leading an effort with unions and industry groups to get passenger-rail included in that rescue package. But late on Friday, House Republicans blocked getting that bill in front of Congress for a vote.

All is not lost, but the fight continues.

These cuts will hurt Amtrak’s workforce and degrade the railroad’s ability to restore service when the time comes. Those conductors, trainmen, engineers and customer-service agents will take time to requalify once they’re asked to return. Meanwhile, thousands of breadwinners will be filing for unemployment benefits during the worst recession in modern times.

And the damage won’t be confined to people like Mrs. Smith and her husband.

The existence of Amtrak buoys the economies of hundreds of towns and cities all across America. And degrading that service means withdrawing those benefits from millions of Americans, even those who don’t necessarily ride the trains themselves, because in many cases lives and livelihoods depend on the routes’ operation.

Whether traveling for vacation, personal reasons or business, visitors spend money at their destinations, paying for hotels or other lodging, patronizing restaurants, shopping or buying local items. By doing this they support the hotel workers, the restaurant waiters and cooks, retail and entertainment outlets, and they generate sales tax revenues for the communities they visit.

Those local workers in turn also contribute to the local tax base, further spreading the economic benefit. Meanwhile, because those visitors have left their cars behind, they're not imposing wear and tear on highways and roads, and they're avoiding the risk and cost of injuries or even death from car crashes. Cutting service drives down ridership and by doing so reduces these benefits.

Mrs. Smith’s email today reminded me that all of our analysis and testimony and numbers and data are really just ways of describing how this hurts real people: conductors, spouses, families, hoteliers, restauranteurs, storekeepers, students, seniors, the disabled and many others. And while it hurts to read it, it also makes me angry enough to fight harder.

Mrs. Smith wrote to Washington. Let’s all write to Washington on behalf of Mrs. Smith, and the thousands of others who will be hurt by these cutbacks -- maybe even you yourself. Go here to use our Take Action tools and speak up for her!