Defending Passengers' Rights Before Congress
November 13, 2019
In U.S. House hearing, Rail Passengers President Jim Mathews testifies that Amtrak is an essential engine for economic growth in towns across the country, and that we cannot cut our way to a sustainable national rail network.
The House Rail & Infrastructure Subcommittee on Rail held a hearing the Amtrak reauthorization on November 13, examining current-day challenges and future opportunities for passenger rail in the U.S. Rail Passengers Association President Jim Mathews testified as part of the panel—which also included representatives from Amtrak, railroad labor, and state transportation officials—arguing that Amtrak is an essential engine for economic growth in town across the country, and that we cannot cut our way to a sustainable national rail network.
The hearing, titled “Amtrak Now and Into the Future,” focused on the funding challenges facing this Congress if it’s going to change the transportation status quo in this country, and overcome decades of underinvestment in passenger trains. T&I Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) attacked the anemic funding levels at the root, challenging the idea that Amtrak—alone, out of all the transportation modes—should have to make a profit.
“Amtrak should be one of our Nation’s great success stories, but it remains one of our Nation’s most difficult challenges because of a belief by some in this chamber that our country shouldn’t have a national passenger rail system supported by the Federal Government,” said DeFazio in his opening remarks. “We spend hundreds of billions of dollars to subsidize every form of public transportation – highways, aviation, transit– yet Amtrak gets the short end of the stick, with under $2 billion a year from the Federal Government… To be clear, I don’t subscribe to this notion that Amtrak needs to operate cost-neutral.”
In his written testimony, Mathews tried to shift the conversation from a narrow focus on the money it takes to operate the train and towards the enormous economic benefits that accrue to the communities served by Amtrak trains.
“Amtrak exists, and collects public funds, expressly to provide service to places that need it and where the private sector cannot profitably provide it…,” said Mathews. “Amtrak is one of the ways the U.S. government acts to support the common good, the ‘general welfare.’ Every Amtrak long-distance route creates a return on equity for the communities that have invested in it over the past few decades. And thanks to rigorous economic modeling this Association has developed over the past year, we have been able to quantify that return in a way that hasn’t been done previously.”
Mathews drew the attention of the Committee to the route-specific studies Rail Passengers have done to quantify these benefits. These studies found the Empire Builder is worth $327 million every year to the economies of the states it serves; that the Southwest Chief brings $180 million in annual economic benefits to New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas; and that that restoring passenger rail between Mobile and New Orleans would produce $216 million in annual economic benefits for Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama, despite costing the three states only about $7 million each year (this last study was done by Transportation for America and the Southern Rail commission using a similar methodology).
A Fix for Aging Equipment—One Temporary, One Permanent
One of Mathews’ points of emphasis was the need to immediately ramp up investment in our nation’s aging fleet of rail equipment, saying that while Amtrak has taken concrete, positive steps in beginning the fleet overhaul, Congress must step up and fully fund the next phase of procurement.
“We are pleased with the initial steps Amtrak and its state partners have taken to procure new equipment (and, as an intermediary step, refresh existing equipment),” wrote Mathews. “However, these steps just aren’t enough when compared with the actual fleet needs. It would take 929 new cars to replace all cars over 37 years of age in Amtrak’s fleet… By Amtrak’s estimate, the outstanding fleet acquisitions alone will approach an estimated $3.5 billion through FY 2024—which doesn’t even address the needs of the Amfleet II and Superliner fleets. If Americans want to keep a national network, we must be willing to pay the true cost of maintaining it.”
This topic came up again during the question and answer portion of the hearing, when Chairman DeFazio asked Mathews to explain the “passenger kit” he referenced in his testimony—the do-it-yourself kit with shims and duct tape many long-distance passengers bring to jury-rig repairs on old equipment.
“For a lot of our long-distance passengers, particularly in the sleeper cars we have kind of a rolling museum out there as you know,” said a half-joking Mathews. “So, the savvy passenger carries duct tape, shims, plastic and wooden to kind of keep the doors from rattling, Velcro repairs and holds the curtains together, that way you can actually keep your curtains closed.”
In response, recognized that the state of the national network fleet was unacceptable and outlined the steps they’re taking to address the problem.
“We are making really big investments in the long distance equipment right now,” said Amtrak President and CEO Richard Anderson. “We’re replacing all the locomotives, we took our grant money from last year, we’re going to make an $800 million investment on all new locomotives for long distance network. We’re replacing all the long-distance bedding, all the pillows, all the mattresses in the long distance and the Superliner IIs and Amfleet IIs. We’re putting though complete overhauls in our shops. So we’re making a lot of investment and to your point, we grew long-distance revenue and long-distance passengers this year faster than Amtrak has grown in probably 10 years… We hear you loud and clear about the importance of the national network, but we can’t do it if our passengers have equipment that’s not in good shape.”
Members of Congress Focused on Cuts
Rail Passengers and Amtrak focused on the need to dramatically expand passenger rail service and add frequencies, which met a receptive audience among the Committee members. However, the Members in attendance also made sure to voice their concern over the steady stream of cuts to employees and customer service, warning Amtrak that it should not try to reach 100 percent cost-recovery on the backs of its employees and customers.
“One concern is that Amtrak has made and continues to make significant cuts to its workforce, including cutting call center employees, food and beverage workers, station agents, and police officers,” said the Rail Subcommittee Chair Dan Lipinski (D-IL). “Last week, Amtrak informed the Transportation Communications Union that it is cutting an additional 89 jobs… Amtrak clearly has decided that the way to prosperity is to have its workers pay for it. This is not the way to run this railroad. Making customer interactions, food and beverage service, and police protection worse decreases Amtrak’s attractiveness to potential riders. You do not get more riders or more revenue with a worse product.”
Congressman Steve Cohen (D-TN) had even stronger words for Amtrak, clashing with Anderson over the changes to onboard food and beverage service. Rep. Cohen asked for Rail Passengers input on these changes in an exchange that perfectly encapsulated the frustration many of our members have been expressing:
Rep. Cohen: I’ve been a fan of train transportation since I was a child, and a supporter of Amtrak. it’s important for America. One of the parts of passenger service that’s made it so wonderful to Americans over the centuries has been a fine dining service… Now, Amtrak is cutting out dining service. This short sighted and foolish. It’s like Delta Airlines taking away amenities to passengers on their airplanes and making air traffic more like traveling on a bus. Mr. Mathews, you’ve had people contact you to let you know about their thoughts on the elimination of food service. Allegedly, to try and get more Millennials who don’t like to sit with others and just look at their phones. What have your people told you about the elimination of food service?”
Mathews: Mr. Cohen, thank you for the question. Reaction has been mixed. I have a stack of letters in my office form folks who recount experiences just like the one you did. They look back fondly on some of the meals they enjoyed and the people that they met. To some extent, one of the things that’s missing is not just the food, it’s the experience. It’s the shared experience of meeting people on the train and having that shared meal which in the modern era, is becoming increasingly a precious thing. Because we don’t come together in public spaces very often. The interesting thing is that Yes, we’ve had some millennials tell us that they would prefer not to visit with other people, but I’ve probably had an equal number of millennials tell me that that is they part they enjoy. In fact, my own son before he was an adult, made a point of traveling on a different reservation for dinner than we had because he wanted to meet other people on the train. he would come back and tell us who he met that day at lunch or at dinner. So, its a very individual thing. I’ve got stacks of letters in my office from folks who really don’t want to see that pass. I understand that maybe we can’t have the big thick filet anymore, but the idea of sitting at a table with no tablecloth, a plastic bag, a pile of plastic trash. That’s just not what they were looking for and certainly not what they paid for.
Listening to the many Congresspeople line up to take shots at the cuts to service, it was hard not to surmise that Amtrak’s management had inflicted this upon themselves—through an unwillingness to incorporate stakeholder feedback into its decision making process. Rail Passengers hopes that the message Congress delivered to Amtrak will sink in, and that the railroad will work hand-in-hand with stakeholders going forward to build a better national rail network that Americans need.
"The support from the Rail Passengers Association, and from all of you individually, has been incredibly important to Amtrak throughout our history and especially so during the last trying year."
Bill Flynn, Amtrak CEO
April 19, 2021, speaking to attendees at the Rail Passengers Virtual Spring Advocacy Conference