Senate Passes Increased Funding for Amtrak, Passenger Rail
September 20, 2019
Appropriations Committee emphasizes importance of National Network to Amtrak-served communities.
The Senate Appropriations Committee passed an $86.6 billion Fiscal Year 2020 transportation funding bill, an increase of $167 million over this year’s levels--$58 million of which went to increased funding for Amtrak. The bill was approved by a vote of 31-0, a strong show of bipartisan support infrastructure investment has in Congress, and a rejection of the Trump Administration’s proposal to eliminate funding for the National Network.
“Thanks to bipartisan cooperation on this Subcommittee, Senator Reed and I have drafted a bill that accommodates the priorities of many Members. We received input from 75 Senators with more than 950 requests, all of which we carefully evaluated,” said Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), chair of the Senate Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee. “This legislation will support job creation and economic development [and] allow us to make critical improvements to our infrastructure.”
While the text of the bill has not yet been released, the Appropriations Committee did release topline figures:
Amtrak: $2 billion
National Network: $1.32 billion
Northeast Corridor: $638 million
$100 million will be reserved for Amfleet 1 replacements
Consolidated Rail Improvement and Safety Investment grants: $255 million
State of Good Repair grants: $300 million
Restoration and Enhancement grants: $2 million
Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) grants: $1 billion
Transit formula grants: $10.1 billion
Transit Infrastructure grants: $560 million
Capital Investment Grants (CIG): $1.978 billion
The CIG appropriations will fully fund all current “Full Funding Grant Agreement” (FFGA) transit projects, as well as new projects that have met the criteria of the CIG program. Congress has taken a more active hand in this program due to delays in distributing this funding by the Trump U.S. DOT.
In addition to setting funding levels, the Senate Appropriations Committee also addressed a number of issues arising from the Trump Administration’s oversight of transportation policy. Additionally, the Committee addresses some of ongoing controversies regarding Amtrak management’s new direction for onboard service and customer relations.
Amfleet Replacements—The Committee directed the FRA to follow the letter of the law when determining which state applications for funding for new equipment were eligible for grant funding, saying the agency must “allow state acquisition costs and on-going capital charges related to Amtrak’s new fleet to be an eligible activity in any future [Notice of Fund Obligations] for the CRISI and SOGR grant programs.”
National Network Services—The committee responded forcefully to the Trump Administration’s budget request that called for the elimination of National Network service. It’s worth quoting at length—and delivers an important message that Amtrak would be well served to take note of:
Amtrak’s long-distance routes provide much needed transportation access in hundreds of communities and for rural areas where mobility options are limited. Equally important are routes that provide service to rural areas from urban areas along the Northeast Corridor. During floor consideration of the Committee’s fiscal year 2019 bill, the Senate voted 95–4 in favor of an amendment to express a sense of Congress that long-distance passenger routes should be sustained to ensure connectivity for the 4.7 million riders in 325 communities in 40 States that rely on this service. The budget request, however, proposes to reduce long-distance service by requiring cost-sharing between States and the Federal Government for operations of long-distance routes, similar to State-supported routes. This proposal will inevitably lead to service cuts or segmentation of routes, which will lead to less service for rural communities. The proposal would also shift significant shared and system-related costs to the NEC and State-supported routes if long-distance routes are terminated. The Committee does not support this proposal. [Emphasis ours.]
On-Time Performance—Responding to dire delays across the national network, where on-time performance is currently averaging below 50 percent, the Committee encouraged the FRA to assist with developing interim and long-term solutions to improve safety where appropriate. It also expressed concern that the failure to resolve the long-term negotiations between Amtrak and Class I freights would result in ongoing delays, which will “compromise safety and reduce customer satisfaction,” leading to reduced ridership and increased reliance on Federal subsidies.
Amtrak Station Agents—Responding to concerns that certain rural communities on the Amtrak network that do not have reliable Internet access are being unduly burdened by the lack of ticket agents, the Committee directed Amtrak to “re-staff stations with ticket agents from which agents have been removed after January 1, 2018, and that averaged not less than 25 passengers per day during the period beginning on January 1, 2013, and ending on December 31, 2017.” The Committee also explicitly state that “caretakers” are often not able to provide assistance to minors and individuals requiring ADA assistance.
Food and Beverage—The Committee urged Amtrak to continue to take actions to reduce food and beverage losses to zero, consistent with the 2020 statutory deadline. It also directed Amtrak deliver a written report within 120 days of the law’s enactment comparing the actual fiscal year 2019 savings with Amtrak projections. While not a surprise, this is disappointing to Rail Passengers, who had argued these services should be seen as loss-leaders that support increased ridership.
Quad Cities to Chicago Rail—Responding to recent progress between the State of Illinois and the Iowa Interstate Railroad to restore train service to the Quad Cities – Chicago passenger rail corridor, the Committee urged the FRA to provide a “multi-year extension of the current grant agreement and encourages the FRA to increase its oversight role to ensure the project remains on track.”
Charter Trains and Private Cars—The Committee reiterated concern over the treatment of Charter Train and Private Car customers, and repeated its direction to Amtrak to “report on the impact of its policies to charter trains and private trains in the fiscal year 2021 budget request, and to include the amounts and percentages by which revenues and usage declined.” The committee also urged greater transparency from Amtrak regarding the list of eligible locations for private car, and greater opportunity for stakeholders to comment on policies that affect services prior to finalizing decisions.
Booking and Cancellation Policies.—Responding to criticism of new policies by commercial tour companies and private tour groups—and expressing concern that these new policies have resulted in a decline in a number of groups riding on Amtrak routes—the Committee directed Amtrak to “reevaluate its booking, deposit, and cancellation policies for groups in order to prevent a decline in ridership,” and to to ensure “group policies do not adversely impact commercial tour operators.”
Passenger Rail in the Bakken Region—The Committee directed Amtrak to continue working with local officials to “address the prospect of adding new passenger rail stops that generate revenue and reduce operating costs of the Empire Builder and other national network routes.” This corresponds to the Rail Passengers study that found a second Amtrak train between Chicago and Minneapolis/St. Paul would bring $25 million annually for the state of Minnesota—an economic return of eight- to ten-times the cost of operating the service.
"The Rail Passenger Association's recognition of the essential work done by SMART-TD members aboard Amtrak during this difficult period is appreciated. The Golden Spike Award serves as a testament to the compassion and dedication our conductors, assistant conductors and other workers exhibit constantly through times both ordinary and extraordinary."
Jeremy Ferguson, SMART-TD President
December 21, 2021, on the Association awarding its 2021 Golden Spike Award to the Frontline Amtrak Employees.